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Strengthening West Virginia's safety net in responding to COVID-19

West Virginia organizations, including AFSC, and community members are coordinating food purchase and delivery for hundreds of  children, seniors, and households impacted by the pandemic.  Photo: Liz Brunello / AFSC

In an ordinary year, a lot of AFSC’s work in West Virginia revolves around the state’s legislative session in the spring, when we advocate with partners and community members on issues affecting low-income and working families. 

This isn’t an ordinary year.

It now seems like eons since March 7, the last day of a legislative session where we achieved significant wins in our work for economic justice and ending mass incarceration. Now we’re focused on responding to COVID-19 in our poor and rural state, where many people were already hurting before the pandemic. 

Our longstanding work and partnerships in West Virginia allowed us to mobilize quickly to keep children, seniors, and other community members from going hungry and advocate for people in prisons, jails, and detention. We're grateful for the many caring individuals like you who are supporting our work to protect the health, safety, and dignity of all people in this crisis.  

Your support is already making a difference. In just the past several weeks, we have worked with partners and community members to:

Make it easier for people to access safety net programs. 

We urged government officials to streamline and remove barriers to accessing critical benefits, such as SNAP food assistance, Medicaid, and unemployment insurance. Several of our recommendations have already been implemented, including ending waiting periods, work requirements, time limits, and eligibility redeterminations for these programs during the outbreak. Earlier on, AFSC also joined several other groups in  a joint letter to Gov. Jim Justice making several immediate and longer-term policy recommendations.

Reduce the number of people prisons and jails as a humanitarian and public health measure. 

During this year's legislative session, we joined with community members and partners in winning passage of several bills to reduce mass incarceration in our state. Our group—which includes the ACLU, Mountain State Justice, and public defender groups—built on this success to advocate for the early release of incarcerated people who did not pose a serious threat to public safety (see our joint press release and letter). We've already had a major impact. Since March 2, West Virginia has released a significant number of people, reducing its jail population by 21% and its prison population by 4.6%. After the state Supreme Court issued guidelines to judges and magistrates to release people in jail who are awaiting trial, the number of pretrial detainees facing misdemeanors is now down by 60.3%. 

Ensure kids, seniors, and all West Virginians have the food they need. 

AFSC has played a key role in expanding free school breakfast and lunch to children statewide. But with schools closed and stay-at-home orders in place, many children, seniors, and other West Virginians were at risk of going hungry. In early March, Liz Brunello of AFSC’s Appalachian Center for Equality (ACE) program teamed up with Jenny Anderson of Our Future WV to create WV Food ER, a Facebook group to connect West Virginians with resources on food as well as opportunities to volunteer.  

The effort quickly led to the creation of Rapid Response WV, a network of organizations, including AFSC, and community members who are working together to coordinate the purchase and delivery of food and hygienic necessities to people in need. We also launched a website that helps people to request assistance and find ways to support community efforts.

Since its creation, Rapid Response WV has helped more than 370 families and now has over 300 volunteers. 

Demand action and accountability from public officials. 

AFSC and allies in the WV Food for All coalition are calling on the governor to issue another executive order requiring county boards of education to come up with comprehensive food delivery systems for the duration of the pandemic.

The need for assistance will only continue to grow in the weeks ahead. While we don’t know what the future will require of us, we know it will involve a combination of direct assistance and advocacy, organizing, and agitation at multiple levels—the kind of work that AFSC has carried out in West Virginia for decades. We know that in any unjust system, there will always be a need for direct assistance and acts of compassion. However, these are no substitutes for justice—for the right of all people to a decent standard of living. 

Your support makes our work possible, espeically in these incredibly difficult times. We are so grateful to know there is much more we can do with you by our side in the months ahead.

About the Author

Rick Wilson is the director of AFSC's West Virginia Economic Justice Project. 

To read more from Rick, check out his personal blog, The Goat Rope

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