Protesters gather in the West Virginia Capitol in September 2022, as lawmakers passed a near-total ban on abortion. Photo by Ian Karbal

As West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice stood in the House of Delegates chamber last week delivering the annual State of the State address, he jumped from topic to topic, highlighting his greatest hits. When he came to the state’s abortion ban, the assembled lawmakers rose in a standing ovation. 

“As long as I’m your governor, I will stand with life, period,” Justice said. “Additionally, I’m proposing that we take care of the moms.”

Justice’s proposal was simple: dedicate $1 million to centers that encourage people to give birth regardless of their circumstances. Less than 24 hours later, the House Health and Human Resources Committee met to pass a bill to make the plan a reality. 

“This is the bill that supports moms that are deciding to keep their pregnancy,” said committee chair Delegate Amy Summers, R-Taylor, after the meeting.

But the bill does little to support parents after they give birth. And in recent years, lawmakers have moved in the opposite direction, working to make it harder for many West Virginians to access two key family services: child care and WV WORKS. 

Now that the state can expect over 1,000 people a year who would have otherwise sought abortion carry to full term, the stakes are even higher.

“On the campaign trail and elsewhere, lawmakers are often talking about the importance of helping kids and the next generation and so forth,” said Jim McKay, the state director of Prevent Child Abuse West Virginia. “Unfortunately, that hasn’t always resulted in meaningful legislation to help those kids thrive.”

Proposed bill lacks aid for state residents raising children

Last summer, after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned federal abortion rights, anti-abortion West Virginia lawmakers aimed to pass two pieces of legislation: a state abortion ban and a family planning bill.

That bipartisan family planning bill would have added tax credits and services for adoptive parents, insurance coverage for sterilization procedures and a system for people to get free birth control. But while the abortion ban was codified, lawmakers did not finish work on its companion.

The latest replacement, HB 2002, has elements of last year’s bill. But the tax credit for non-family adoptions has been reduced from $8,000 to $5,000; that’s still an increase over the current $4,000 tax credit, though experts at a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting last year noted that the average cost of adoption is around $45,000. 

Additionally, the requirement that insurance used in the state covers sterilization is gone. So is the provision making hormonal birth control available to all without a prescription. Replacing them is a program set up to fund anti-abortion centers, which would not be required to comply with federal privacy policies or have their employees go through background checks. 

“I’m very concerned when we’re creating a system to spend public funds, taxpayer money on unregulated, unlicensed health centers,” said Delegate Mike Puskin, D-Kanawha, the Democratic Party state chair.

Summers affirmed that this bill is intended to help pregnant West Virginians. She does not expect the House to move any other legislation that would create easier access to birth control pills this session.

“This is the one,” she said. 

Other members of the Legislature are concerned that the bill doesn’t do what Justice has committed himself to doing: supporting West Virginia’s mothers as they raise children. 

“It’s apples and oranges,” said Delegate Kayla Young, D-Kanawha. “We’re not talking about the same thing.”

Child care costs rise as subsidies dry up

After children are born, researchers have found affordable child care is a major burden — both in West Virginia and around the country.

“Parents are paying an astronomical amount,” said Tiffany Gale, the owner and director of Miss Tiffany’s Early Childhood Education House in Weirton, noting that the average cost of one West Virginia kid’s child care is over $700 a month. 

Some parents got a reprieve during the first few years of the COVID-19 emergency, when the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources used federal pandemic funds to help cover child care costs for essential workers. For child care providers, the agency changed how they compensated employers: centers that accepted kids using government assistance programs were still paid even if a student missed a session, a practice recommended by national policy groups. 

Those shifts are now in the process of reverting back to the pre-pandemic status quo. Last November, DHHR restricted the essential worker subsidies to families that make under 85% of West Virginia’s median income, a change that is expected to take financial assistance away from 6,500 children. And in September, the agency is set to change their subsidy payment model from enrollment back to attendance.

West Virginia legislators had the opportunity to address those problems last year. Instead, they passed a bill to incentivize organizations to set up child care facilities for employees, legislation that health analysts say does not make child care more available for working class families.

“The state of West Virginia keeps saying ‘we’re helping child care…look at this bill,’” Gale said. “No. That bill does not help child care. That bill helps large corporations.”

WV Works funds have become harder to access

For Krista Antis, a St. Albans resident and South Charleston High School English teacher, qualifying for cash assistance through WV WORKS would have helped her family stay afloat as she raised her son Davis as a single mother.

“We were so broke when he was young,” she said. “It was picking which bills to pay.”

But despite not being able to afford basic necessities, she always made just too much money to qualify for the state’s iteration of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. 

In recent years, WV WORKS has stockpiled more than 100 million unspent federal dollars. But instead of making these unused funds easier to get, state lawmakers have made access harder. In 2021, after piloting a program that added mandatory drug tests before West Virginians could receive WV WORKS payments, the Republican-led state Legislature made those tests permanent requirements

According to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, that program wastes state money, limits who can get the funds, deters people from applying to the program and degrades poor West Virginians.

“We’ve further restricted TANF, which is like basically the only cash benefit available to very low income families,” said Kelly Allen, the Center’s executive director. “People who rely on TANF are no more likely to use drugs than anyone else. It’s very stigmatizing.”

Despite the past, a few health lobbyists are optimistic that they’ll be able to leverage the abortion ban to push some of these policies to help families. Already in the session, Senator Charles Trump, R-Morgan, has sponsored a bill that pilots a 12-week paid parental leave program for state employees. 

“There’s a group of us who are coming together saying, ‘You support maternal and child health. That was clear that that was part of your rationale for restricting abortion rights in our state,’” said Kat Stoll, the policy director for West Virginians for Affordable Health Care. “Now let’s see if [they] can invest in some of the services that women and children will need.”

Allen Siegler is the public health reporter for Mountain State Spotlight. He can be reached at (681) 317-7571.