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Poverty rate in Berkeley County increases

February 15, 2000|By DAVE McMILLION, Charles Town

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Despite a robust, fast-growing economy, the child poverty rate in Berkeley County, W.Va., has increased 25 percent since 1990, according to a state report issued Tuesday.

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One of the reasons may be that low-paying jobs are outpacing higher paying ones almost 3 to 1 as the county's population continues to increase.

The numbers are contained in the 1999 West Virginia Kids Count report, an ongoing effort to collect data about the health, economic, educational and social well-being of children in the state.

Experts who put together the report said poor children are more likely to be born with low birth weight, have chronic health problems, be unprepared for school and have poor academic achievement.

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The Kids Count report, which is produced in cooperation with the West Virginia University Survey Research Center, says approximately 20 percent of Berkeley County's children were growing up in poor families in 1999.

In 1990, the rate was 16.1 percent, according to the report.

Although a 20 percent child poverty rate is sufficient to case concern, increasing child poverty is common across the country, said Margie Hale, executive director of Kids Count in Charleston.

The problem is related to a failure to increase wages sufficiently to offset inflation and the increase in the number of single-parent families, Hale said.

"You're probably just following the trend," Hale said of Berkeley County's numbers.

Berkeley County's child poverty rate is below the statewide rate of 30 percent, which shows "how terrible" child poverty is in other parts of the state, Hale said.

In McDowell County, for example, 56 percent of the county's children live in poverty, according to the report.

Hale and local economic development experts said other issues may be driving up the county's child poverty rate, like the slow increase in high-paying jobs.

The report says Berkeley County has had a 10.5 percent increase in high-paying jobs, but a 30.1 percent increase in low-paying jobs.

Another factor is that increasing numbers of children living in poverty may naturally correspond to the increasing population in the county, said Ken Green, director of the Region 9 Planning and Development Council in Martinsburg.

Hale and Green agreed that the child poverty rate may level off in Berkeley County if the brisk economic growth here continues, particularly if higher paying jobs are developed.

But if there is a recession or economic downtown, the families living in poverty are the "first ones to feel the brunt of that," Green said.

Another indicator Kids Count uses to gauge the number of poor children is the percentage of children approved for free and reduced-price school meals in grades K-12.

The number of children eligible for the meals in Berkeley County is 38.4 percent, under the state rate of 49.1 percent, the report said.

"Although Berkeley County's percentage is lower than the state average, one-third more of Berkeley County's children qualified for this program (in 1999) than in 1990," the report said.

In Jefferson County, the child poverty rate has increase modestly since 1990 to 17.1 percent, the report said. Low-paying jobs have outpaced high-paying jobs in Jefferson County as well, with a 3.5 percent increase in higher paying jobs and a 19.1 percent increase in lower paying ones, the report said.

In Morgan County, the child poverty rate increased 78 percent since 1990 with about 18 percent of the county's children growing up in poor families, according to Kids Count.

During the same time, high-paying jobs have decreased by 18 percent in Morgan County, the report said.

Berkeley County businessman Bruce Van Wyk has emphasized the need for a new community college in Berkeley County to offer better training to area workers.

"We need to add more high-paying jobs, and improved education is absolutely critical in this effort," Van Wyk said Tuesday.

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