— It’s time for us to create a pathway for success.
For more than a half century, West Virginia has been at or near the bottom with almost every economic indicator, including percentage of citizens living below the poverty line. In the 1960s, President Johnson famously used Appalachia as a backdrop to launch his War on Poverty.
More recently, we’ve heard numerous political leaders attribute our state’s problems exclusively to the coal industry’s decline. However, this one-dimensional diagnosis fails to acknowledge the historic rate of poverty that has existed across the state for decades. Going backwards seems like an insufficient, not to mention disingenuous, economic plan.
If West Virginia wants to create a future that looks different than our past, state lawmakers must be willing to establish policies that offer a pathway to economic security.
First, West Virginia should increase the minimum wage to levels that are more on par with a true living wage. While the state should be commended for incrementally raising the minimum wage to $8.75 over the past several years, this amounts to an annual income of just $18,200 per year—well below the poverty line for a family of three. West Virginia should take steps to increase the minimum wage to at least $10 per hour, with automatic annual adjustments to account for inflation. If we had begun indexing the minimum wage for inflation beginning in the late 1960s, it would be nearly $11 today.
Second, West Virginia should follow 26 other states in establishing an Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) as a means of incentivizing workforce participation and providing tax relief to families who need it most. The state EITC could be modeled after the popular federal program, which has helped millions of low- and moderate-income families make ends meet. In West Virginia, the EITC would benefit 140,000 households statewide, including 3,500 in Jefferson County.
Third, the Legislature should pass the “Second Chance Employment Act,” which would give job seekers with a single, non-violent felony conviction the opportunity to petition a court to have their criminal record expunged. Thousands of West Virginians who have served out their sentences and set their lives on a better path often struggle to find work because employers are wary of hiring anyone with a criminal record. This bipartisan legislation, which was narrowly defeated in the House of Delegates in 2016, would help break down barriers to workforce participation.
Of course, it would be naïve to suggest that a small set of policy prescriptions can serve as a panacea for everything that ails our state. There are other critical steps we must take to spur economic growth, including investing in infrastructure development, supporting small business creation and entrepreneurship, and helping to cultivate an educated and sober workforce.
However, West Virginia will continue to fall short of its potential if we don’t find ways to more directly address the needs of low-income earners. We must take steps to help working families achieve true self-sufficiency while also decreasing the overall strain on social programs. It’s time for us to create a pathway for success.
Rod Snyder is the Democratic nominee for the West Virginia House of Delegates in the 67th district.