June 14, 2017 11:08:34 AM
Lakesha Richardson said the fire that destroyed her home in April was a mixed blessing.
On the one hand, she and her four children -- whose ages range from 5 to 12 -- lost everything.
On the other hand, the fire bumped her ahead of the hundreds of people on the waiting list for housing from the Columbus Housing Authority. Richardson, who had been living in a two-bedroom house with her grandmother since her divorce about six years ago, had been trying to get her own place for years.
"We lived in one of these units when I was growing up," Richardson said, looking around at the small living room, newly furnished with things her family and church friends have given her since the fire. "So I grew up in poverty. And that was the one thing I didn't want to have to raise my children in."
She suddenly found herself without income after her divorce -- her husband had been the one whose job took care of the family's finances -- so she moved back to Columbus to live with her grandmother in a house built in the 1940s. She had half-expected a fire, she said -- the house lacked proper insulation and electrical work. They didn't have hot water, and there was a bug problem, she said. Occasionally, they even saw a rat.
But before the fire, Richardson had a job at Headstart and was taking online college courses. After the fire, she was laid off at Headstart and had to quit her online courses while she looked for somewhere new to live. Now she's working at a nursing home, part-time during the week and full-time on weekends, bringing in about $300 per week. She's lucky for having family nearby who can watch her kids while she works, and she doesn't have to worry they don't have enough to eat. But she wants to do better for her kids.
"It seems like every time I try to get ahead, something else happens," she said.
A real problem
Richardson's story is hardly unique in Mississippi. According to newly released data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, almost one-third of children in the state live in poverty, and even more don't have parents with secure employment.
Those numbers are according to the foundation's latest Kids Count Report, which gathers data from government census information and other sources every year for a state-by-state comparison of children's wellbeing. Mississippi consistently ranks at the bottom of most study metrics, and this year lagged behind every other state in general wellbeing.
"The high percentage of children in families in Mississippi who are living in poverty continues to be one of the core reasons (the state still places) in the bottom of these overall child wellbeing indexes," said Linda Southward, a spokesperson for Kids Count in Mississippi.
The report breaks child wellbeing into four groups: economic wellbeing, education, health and family and community. Mississippi placed last in both economic wellbeing and family and community; 48th in education, beating Nevada and New Mexico; and 48th in health, beating Louisiana and Wyoming.
The most striking difference between Mississippi and the rest of the country is economic. According to the data, 31 percent of children in Mississippi are in poverty, compared to 21 percent in the United States overall. And of the children living in Mississippi, 37 percent did not have parents who worked more than 35 hours per week 50 weeks out of the year in 2015, compared to 29 percent in the United States overall.
Those numbers are improvements from 2010, when 33 percent of Mississippi's children lived in poverty and 39 percent of them had parents who lacked secure employment, according to the data.
Mississippi also lags behind in education. Seventy-four percent of Mississippi fourth graders are not proficient in reading and 78 percent of eighth graders are not proficient in math -- though that last number is a drastic improvement from 2010, when 85 percent of students were not proficient in math.
Poverty could be the underlying factor to the difficulties of kids in other indicators, like education and health, Southward said.
"It's really hard to separate out any of these," she said. "Even though they are reported separately, the intersection between poverty and health and education, one certainly impacts the other. Children need to be healthier so they can learn. ... Children who are in poverty are more likely to have health concerns. If you have health concerns, you're more likely to have educational concerns and challenges."
Still, she said, Mississippi has generally improved its raw statistics, if not its ranking among other states.
"Obviously we're not starting where other states are. Across the country, indicators are getting better for children," she said. "So even though we're getting better, we would have to be getting substantially better in many of those indicators to get out of our 50th ranking."
Among the most optimistic of the numbers, she said, is 96 percent of the state's children have health insurance -- an improvement from 92 percent in 2010 and actually better than the nation's numbers of 95 percent.
Other improved numbers include the nationwide drop in teen pregnancy. In Mississippi, the number of teen girls giving birth dropped from 55 per thousand to 35 per thousand, while the county's drop was from 34 per thousand to 22 per thousand.
Southward also made suggestions for improvements -- among them, more resources for pre-kindergarten and other early education programs to give the education numbers a boost and, on the economic side, having the state implement an earned-income tax credit for needy families.
"There is a federal earned income tax credit, but Mississippi does not have a state-based (credit)," Southward said. "What it does is allow low to moderate income workers to keep more of their earnings."
The Kids Count website provides more information on national, state and local numbers. To view the website, go to http://www.aecf.org/resources/2017-kids-count-data-book.
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