Our View: Getting at the root of poverty

July 25, 2014 10:35:44 AM



Figures from a U.S. Census Report paint a grim picture of life in the Golden Triangle. The U.S. Census Bureau classifies "poverty areas" as census tracts with a 20 percent poverty rate or higher. According to this definition the entire Golden Triangle region is a poverty area. 


Lowndes County has a poverty rate of 25.7 percent. It's 34.2 percent in Oktibbeha County and 24.3 percent in Clay County The city of Columbus has a poverty rate of 35.2 percent. 


These figures while disturbing hardly come as a surprise, especially to those civic groups, organizations and churches who are on the front lines of area poverty. Last week, First United Methodist Church of Columbus announced plans to launch a program that will provide meals for 40 children on the weekends. 


The need likely goes much further than the church is able to provide since as much as 95 percent of the students in the city's schools are eligible for free or reduced lunches. Other churches have their own campaigns help the hungry, including the multi-denominational Loaves and Fishes, which provides lunches for those in need two days a week. 


All of these programs are worthy of the community's support. Yet these programs address the symptoms, rather than the root causes. 


A lack of education is often cited as a root cause of poverty, but there is another factor that cannot be dismissed: teen pregnancy. When unmarried, unprepared teens have babies, it perpetuates a cycle of hopelessness that often condemns parent and child alike to a lifetime of almost impossible odds, resulting in a burden to taxpayers of untold millions of dollars. 


According to TeenHelp.org, a support and forum website for teens, only one-third of teen moms ever complete high school. Eighty percent of unmarried teen moms end up on welfare, half of them within a year of becoming teen moms. The daughters of teen mothers are 22 percent more likely than their peers to become teen mothers and sons of teen moms are 13 percent more likely to go to prison than their peers. 


In Mississippi, the political climate only grudgingly permits a tepid assault on this epidemic. School districts can choose between "abstinence only" education and "abstinence plus," the latter of which provides some basic information about things such as contraception. Much lip service is giving by our state leaders about combating teen pregnancy, of course, and they often cite statistics that show the teen birth rate has declined over the past 10 years. 


What is not said is that the teen birth rate in Mississippi has fallen less than in any other state in the union. 


If our state is serious about fighting teen pregnancy and the poverty it produces, we should not be shy about waging an all-fronts assault on it. 


Other countries whose views on the matter are based more on reality that morality, have demonstrated how teen pregnancy can be reduced dramatically. Last January, France adopted such a nation-wide program to reduce teen pregnancy. This includes the decision to distribute emergency contraception in schools. Public health and religious officials, parents and school nurses were receptive because they recognized that many adolescents, especially older ones, are going to be sexually active. 


We find no fault in encouraging abstinence. No one would seriously argue otherwise. But we also know that there is often a difference between what young people SHOULD do and what they ACTUALLY do. It is only logical to base our policy on the latter. 


If the U.S. teen pregnancy rate were that of France, there would be 334,000 fewer births to teen moms annually. If the rate were that of Germany, there would be 80,000 fewer abortions annually. 


It is time to launch an aggressive assault on teen pregnancy through education, counseling and by making contraception readily available. 


For those who object to this tactic on religious grounds, the question we pose is this: What represents a great moral, economic and cultural cost to our community? Providing complete information on pregnancy and contraception? Or our continued high rate of teen births and abortions and the generations of human misery it perpetrates? 


If our community and our state are to ever emerge from the crippling bondage of poverty, we'll have to make some uncomfortable choices. 


Do we have the resolve to make them?