Anner Cunningham, project specialist for the North Mississippi Center for Higher Educational Advancement, works with Marino Hubbard at the Columbus Learning Center Monday afternoon. Cunningham meets with every person who goes through the school. Photo by: Zach Odom/Dispatch Staff
August 12, 2014 11:14:30 AM
The transition out of poverty brought one word to mind for Anner Cunningham: Intimidating.
Cunningham works for a non-profit in West Point called the Educational Opportunity Center, which helps people in pursuit of higher education plan their futures.
"The resources are available around the Golden Triangle area, but sometimes it may become intimidating and a person may not know where to start, what to ask or where to go," she said. "And because of that they may never start school or sign up for a training class and then time and years go by."
There are 27 census tracts within the Golden Triangle, 20 of which classify as poverty areas, or areas with poverty rate of 20 percent or higher. Recent evidence shows that living in areas of high poverty can lead to children from middle and upper income families having a harder time moving ahead in the world.
Lynn Phillips-Gaines is a Starkville financial planner who founded the Starkville group Bridges Out of Poverty in 2012. She said the problem with many efforts to end poverty is the assumption that those trying to help know what is best for those in need.
"We tend to just want to fix it," she said. "Rather than sit down with them, listen and find out what they need."
What those in poverty need, Phillips-Gaines said, is the knowledge that many middle class people take for granted. Bridges Out of Poverty offers a 16-week class called "Getting Ahead in a Just Getting by World" where they teach people in poverty about middle class society norms. The middle class is all about the future, the lower class is all about today, Phillips-Gaines said. Her group aims to make communication between the social classes easier, because both sides can learn a lot from each other.
The Getting Ahead class teaches those in poverty about the causes of poverty, and the importance of making good choices. But the class also emphasizes that those in poverty are not to blame for their situation.
Bridges Out of Poverty refers to those in their program as "co-investigators" and part of the course is for participants to do research within their own communities about poverty.
The class focuses on asking those in poverty questions: What do you want to do? What can you do to get there? How do you plan to apply for that school? What steps are you going to take to get the next job?
"We do not do any of the heavy lifting," Phillips-Gaines said. "They do it all."
Phillips-Gaines became interested in helping the Starkville area after learning that Starkville's poverty rate exceeds 30 percent. She is an ordained deacon in the episcopal church, but said that her non-profit group is able to operate with less bureaucracy and more efficiency than church or government groups.
"There's always an agenda, and it's not necessarily the good of the people," she said of some programs that try to end poverty.
Searching for 'real impact'
The American Dream is upward mobility, the belief that the next generation will have more, will do better. But for those born into poverty within the Golden Triangle and throughout Mississippi, mobility is sometimes hard to achieve.
Poverty statistics are not new. The state has tried to address the problem before. The problem, observers say, is in long-term application and commitment. Poverty is a problem that is often passed from one generation to the next.
Pete Walley, the director of the economic planning bureau for Mississippi Public Universities, said that is why it needs a multi-generational solution.
The rate of cigarette use among young people has plummeted in the last half century. The government put big money into educational programs through the years that has established the health risks of smoking. These programs have continued to this day. That approach, Walley said, should be applied to programs committed to lowering teen pregnancy and high school drop-out rates, which often go hand-in-hand with poverty.
In 2008, the state legislature and various non-profit groups rolled out the "Get on the Bus" program, which aimed to combat high drop-out rates in schools statewide. But when funding fizzled out, the program died.
"If we had continued it, we could have made a real impact," Walley said.
Dr. Darrin Webb, the economist for the Mississippi Institute of Higher Learning, suspects there is not enough of an effort being made to change the mindset of poverty. But that does not mean that there are no resources available.
"Much can be done on an individual basis," Webb said.
He also emphasized graduating high school and waiting to start a family until financially ready. He said it is important to consider long-term consequences from individual actions. The key to getting out of poverty is acquiring skills and education, both of which he said are available for state residents.
"We have a wonderful system of community colleges," Webb said.
Both Webb and Walley agree that changes from politicians that can truly have an impact are unlikely.
"It's an easy thing to start something like that, because it gets their picture in the paper," Webb said.
"Political viewpoint is on the next election, not 25 years down the road," Walley said.
Learning a way out
Most experts agree that the best way to get out of poverty is acquiring more education and more skills. A study released by the Economic Analysis and Research Network in 2013 said the biggest contributer to successful state economies is a well educated workforce.
"Providing expanded access to high quality education will not only expand economic opportunity for residents, but also likely do more to strengthen the overall state economy than anything else a state government can do," the study states.
The poverty circumstances in the Golden Triangle both stem from, and contribute to, the state of Mississippi public schools. Mississippi spends the least per student in public schools statewide and has the lowest high school graduation rate in the country.
That might explain why when it comes to funding public schools, the people of Mississippi are trying to take matters into their own hands.
The 1997 Mississippi Adequate Education Program was passed to insure that the state gave the proper amount of resources to its students. Since the bill has passed, there have only been two years in which the state legislature has fully funded the state public schools.
In the past six years, the state has underfunded schools by around $1.5 billion.
This year the non-profit organization Better Schools, Better Jobs has been gathering signatures on a petition. If 200,000 signatures are collected there will be a ballot initiative that Mississippians will vote on this November.
The ballot initiative would force the legislature to put all the requested money into schools every year. It's called Ballot Initiative 42. It would not call for new taxes, according to organizers. The petition has until October 1, to receive the signatures it needs to force the state legislature to put all the money needed for fully-functional schools into them. If the signatures are gathered the ballot will be put a vote in November 2015.
Cunningham is among those gathering petition signatures for Initiative 42. She said progress is happening, but is slower than she expected.
"I don't see urgency for people signing the petition," Cunningham said. "I don't think it's being advertised like it should."
Ballot Initiative 42 petition:
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