Sen. Joe Manchin speaks during an event last month. Photo courtesy Manchin's office.

A quarter of West Virginia’s children are living in poverty thanks in part to the actions of Democratic West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who repeatedly stymied federal legislation to extend the expanded child tax credit. The program provided monthly cash payments to families of over 300,000 kids in the state in 2021.

West Virginia’s child poverty rate last year was 25%, up from 20.7% in 2021, according to census figures released last week. 

Child poverty improved in recent years due to a stronger economy and pandemic aid, including the child tax credit. Now that the aid is gone, the poverty rate returned to around the level the state has struggled with for years. 

Manchin said he had no regrets during a recent interview after being asked about the effect on the national child poverty rate. 

“It’s deeper than that, we all have to do our part,” he told Semafor. “The federal government can’t run everything.” 

The expanded child tax credit provided qualified families with $300 per month for each child under 6 and $250 for each child 7-17. Studies show the program lifted millions of children across the nation out of poverty. 

But the program only lasted for six months, despite the Biden administration push for an extension. 

Manchin — often the deciding vote in the then-evenly split Senate — said in late 2021 he would not support a major legislative proposal that included a one-year extension of the benefits, saying it could increase inflation and benefit people who didn’t need it. 

The proposal — known as Build Back Better — died after Manchin pulled his support. Parts of it were revived in the Inflation Reduction Act past last year but not the expanded child tax credit.

A spokesperson for Manchin did not answer questions from Mountain State Spotlight about if his opposition to extending the credit led to the increase in child poverty. 

“Senator Manchin continues to support policies that support hard-working families and give every child a chance to achieve the American dream,” a Manchin spokesperson said in an email, adding that he has supported moves to increase funding for child development and Head Start programs. 

In the data released last week, West Virginia was the only state where child poverty increased. But the state has long been near the bottom in terms of child poverty; it is the only one in the country with a rate above 20% that didn’t see its rate steadily decrease between 2010 and 2022. 

The numbers cited are the official poverty rate. However, another measurement called the supplemental poverty rate that looks at take home pay — not just pre-tax income — showed it more than doubled amongst children throughout the United States. 

Sean O’Leary, senior policy analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said the state has always struggled with child poverty. The rate held firm around 25% between 2010 and 2018, with a drop to 20% in 2019. 

He said while the trend downward in 2019 could be attributed to a relatively healthy economy, the low level in 2021 was a direct result of federal COVID-19 aid. 

On the ground in Webster County, local Family Resource Network Director Todd Farlow said he’s seen conditions worsen. The rural county, already hurting from the downturn in mining, saw a brief reprieve in 2019, only to see another downturn once COVID aid dried up. 

“COVID, like a lot of communities, really did a number on us,” he said. “We’ve definitely seen an uptick in people looking for our services, especially after the relief ran out. I think that COVID money helped people.”

As federal money dried up, other states expanded child tax credits 

While the expanded tax credit is gone for now, there are talks of efforts to revisit it in the future. In light of last week’s data showing rising child poverty across the nation, Sen. Michael Bennett, D-C.O., said he wants to look into reintroducing the program. 

Other states have “piggy backed off what the feds did” and enacted their own expanded child tax credit, according to O’Leary. At this point, 14 states have expanded their child tax credits, with 11 instituting payments similar to the federal program. 

West Virginia did not adopt a state-level child tax credit. O’Leary said in order to do so, the Legislature would have to repeal the tax cuts passed during the 2023 regular session, because the money used for a refund has already been spoken for with the cuts. 

Del. Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, who sits on the House Committee for Children, Senior and Family Issues, said while he would like to see more help for families from the state, the tax cuts passed last year would make that impossible. 

“The party in charge does not represent that particular constituency – they’re here for the middle and upper middle classes,” he said. 

The poverty rate amongst children was still around 25% prior to the Republicans taking the Legislature in 2014. 

House of Delegates spokeswoman Ann Ali said while not everything can be fixed by the state Legislature, most of its members are getting feedback from their constituents on how to tackle issues like child poverty. 

“Lawmakers have been and will continue to study and discuss ways they may be able to help curb childhood poverty on a state level,” Ali said.

Henry Culvyhouse is a seasoned journalist who has served at small town dailies in West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky. He is a native of Inwood, West Virginia, where he graduated from Musselman...