September 14, 2012 12:28:47 PM
Slim Smith - [email protected]
Thursday afternoon at Emerson School in Starkville, I walked into a room full of statistics.
And if the folks in charge had taken role, I imagine it would have gone something like this:
According to the latest figures, 29 percent of Oktibbeha County families with children under age 18 live in poverty. Unemployment is a key contributor, with a county unemployment rate of 9.2 percent, slightly higher than the state average and a point or so above the national average.
Substandard living conditions?
In the county, 42 percent of residents live in multiple-family homes, 28 percent live in substandard housing, nine percent have inconsistent living arrangement, which means they move from one place to another, often on a moment's notice.
Single parent household?
Forty-five percent of the county's children live in single parent homes, almost all of them headed by females. The teen mother rate in Oktibbeha County is 28.8 percent.
In 2010, there were 86 reported cases of child abuse in the county, a 28-percent increase in just one year.
So, yeah, statistically-speaking it was a packed house.
I am pretty sure those numbers are comparable in Lowndes and Clay counties, too.
I suppose if the occupants had simply remained statistics, it would be easy enough to make sweeping pronouncements about them. They are those who are dependent on those "entitlements" that conservatives are always complaining about. Conservatives will not particularly like to be characterized as being compassion-less, I know. But I've always believed that people talk most about the things they most care about. And you never hear conservatives say much of anything about those who live on the fringes of our society. As statistics, it's easy for the Right to see them as lazy, immoral, worthless, useless, a drain on society. As mere numbers, it is easy enough to suggest that they get off the government dime and "pull themselves up by the bootstraps."
But it wasn't a set of statistics that I saw in that room Thursday, although those stark numbers were all well represented.
What I saw was a group of five single moms, all teen mothers. Kids themselves, I thought. Naive, confused, poorly-educated, desperate kids.
There was Tiffany, at age 19, a mother of three children ages 3, 2 and five-months. Asked what her dreams were for her children, she said she wanted her daughter to be a hair-dresser, "because that's what I want to be myself,'' and she hopes her two boys will "play football."
Debra, now 36, has a 20-year-old and a 16-year-old.
Like many teen mothers, Debra is the daughter of a teen mother.
"Mama didn't want to be a teen mother and I didn't, either,'' Debra says. "What you learn, that's what you live.''
Since retiring as a Girl Scouts of America director four years ago, Elmarie Brooks has been working as the director of the Teen Parent Coalition of Oktibbeha County to reach these moms and provide them the guidance they so desperately need.
Thursday was the first day of the program. Two sessions were held. The idea is to bring teen moms together to help them provide support, improve parenting skills and promote self-development.
Brooks has been out in the community looking for participants for the past two months.
The result: Twelve moms showed up for the early-afternoon session. Five more turned out in the later session.
That's a drop in the bucket, really.
But Brooks is not discouraged. Those who attended Thursday's sessions, if they continue to attend and participate, have a chance to better their odds of "making it" and thereby ending the cycle.
Brooks said one look at the answers to the questionnaire the young moms fill out confirms something she already suspected.
These moms have grown up in poverty and all that it entails. They are the children of single moms, many of whom never finished high school. They are almost certain to perpetuate their childhood in the lives of their children. As Debra noted, you do live what you learn.
Brooks hopes to teach them something more, if not for their sake then for the sake of their children.
"The common denominator is low self-esteem," Brooks said. "Their self-image is so poor that they wonder how it is that anyone could ever love and value them. And being loved and valued is something they are desperate to have.''
That desperate desire for love leads to misguided, often destructive relationships that produce children, who are themselves born into the cycle. They grow up poor, uneducated, starving for self-worth, hungry for someone to tell them they are worthwhile.
It might be easy for some to look at these young, misguided, poor teen mothers and coldly suggest that they are accountable for the mistakes they have made.
But what of their children? What real chance do they have other than to live what they learn?
Maybe if these young moms "learn better," their children will "live better."
The odds against them are almost impossibly high.
But isn't it worth the effort?
There are many who say we simply can't afford the "entitlements" that fund the kind of work Brooks is doing.
I'm pretty sure we can't afford not to.
Statistically speaking, of course.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]