By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – Verona resident Minnie Plunkett waited on a recent Thursday in a pickup truck while her adult daughter went into a Tupelo food pantry, hoping to eliminate hunger from their list of worries for another week.
The family hadn’t spent much time at home while Plunkett’s husband remained in the hospital from complications from diabetes, a foot surgery that led him to lose a few toes. Both Minnie Plunkett and her husband receive income from federal disability payments – him for diabetes and her for severe nerves after a son died a few years ago.
Plunkett said she holds garage sales to try to make extra money to pay bills. She also raises an eight-year-old child, the daughter of a stepdaughter.
“It’s hard to make ends meet,” said Plunkett, who said she worked most of her life. “I just wish I was in a different position.”
As the mother and daughter waited to receive a few sacks of food from the pantry operated by church volunteers, their living situation shows a household like many others in Lee County living in poverty.
The national poverty threshold for a family of four with two children was $23,283 in 2012. For a single parent with two children, poverty is an income of $18,498. For a single mom with four kids, an income of less than $30,104 is considered below poverty.
The Census’ American Community Survey’s 2012 estimate shows nearly 1 in 5 Lee County residents live in poverty, while nearly 1 in 4 live in poverty for Mississippi overall, the highest among all states nationwide.
Poverty has seeped into more communities in the distressed economy of recent years. Among the 24 Mississippi counties considered part of the Appalachian region, mostly in Northeast Mississippi, 12 were considered economically distressed in fiscal year 2004. Ten fiscal years later, it has expanded to 16 counties.
Lee County’s economic status has listed as “transitional” for more than a dozen years. In the current fiscal year 2014, the county has six areas considered economically distressed, double from three years prior.
Hope for better life
Parents and grandparents in financially struggling families want their children and grandchildren to have a better life and a brighter future than what they were born into. Poverty experts agree that educational success is critical for individuals to achieve economic security as adults.
But families in poverty often face scenarios that people in the middle class don’t experience. Poverty can mean living without emotional support systems when problems occur and often involves living without a safety net that financial savings or access to credit provide during emergencies.
Kim Shackelford, deputy administrator of the division of family and human services at the Mississippi Department of Human Services in Jackson, said poverty has many ways of preventing children from doing their best in school.
“Anything that takes a child’s attention from their studies will impact their education, things that take their attention from school work,” Shackelford said. “If your family is struggling to make ends meet, you know the kids know that mom is trying to find work.”
Poverty distractions can include hunger pangs from not having food or sugary snacks that lead to malnourishment. When children fill up on potato chips and ramen noodles at home, it affects their ability to focus and concentrate.
Many parents in Northeast Mississippi fall into the category of working poor. They have jobs but still struggle to find a way to cover their monthly expenses. Children left at home without supervision while their parents work bring more opportunities to get into trouble. And poor families often can’t scrape up the extra money for kids to participate in extracurricular activities like band or sports.
“This impacts self-esteem,” Shackleford said.
In much of Mississippi, rural areas further isolate and challenge children living in poverty. Without access to transportation to events or Internet to complete schoolwork, they can miss out on activities that lead other students to get ahead.
Even as parents want their children to have a better life, challenges for middle-class families turn into crises for families in poverty. For people in poverty living paycheck to paycheck, someone losing a job, or even something smaller – losing transportation to work – can spiral into a chain reaction of problems.
Roland “Wade” Williams, a regional area social work supervisor for the Mississippi Department of Human Services, has been in the social work field for nearly a decade, two and a half years as a frontline social worker. Williams is based in Monroe County and his region includes Lee County and surrounding areas. He has seen how poverty can create a chain reaction in families that seemed to function without major problems.
“Something can come along and have a tumbling effect,” he said, “And it can lead to domestic violence with the kids watching or something else that’s out of control.”
In uncertain economic times, loss of employment can change everything when a family depends on the next paycheck for food, rent and other bills without savings or other safety net.
“They can lose their jobs and fall on hard times,” Williams said. “We see situations like that where they can’t locate a job. That impacts their ability to get health care and insurance.”
Poverty in family situations affects children in many ways such as low self-esteem or even physical abuse. Stressful home situations can lead parents to resort to unhealthy ways of coping, often experiencing mental health issues such as depression and anger.
Educator and bestselling author Ruby K. Payne’s foundational book for teachers and others who work with people in poverty, “A Framework for Understanding Poverty,” describes poverty in more general terms, as the “extent to which an individual does without resources.” This includes areas beyond just finances but also resources related to emotional, mental, spiritual, physical, support systems, relationships/role models and knowledge of hidden rules of economic classes.
The idea of hidden rules involves knowledge and awareness people in economic classes – poverty, middle class or wealth – take for granted but people in a different economic class don’t know or understand.
Often, according to Payne, teachers and others in the middle class can make false assumptions about students from poverty based on the students’ behavior or language used, which may work for people living in poverty but not in a middle class environment. In general, Payne writes that people in poverty value relationships the most, while people in the middle class value achievement more.
Rules and lessons for surviving in poverty can include how to live without a checking account or how to move in a half day. Middle-class hidden rules include knowing how to talk to their children about going to college and how to sign them up for youth baseball, piano lessons and other activities.
Payne co-authored another book, “Bridges Out of Poverty,” which helps explain hidden rules of poverty to social, health and other frontline workers and how to help people in poverty learn hidden rules of the middle class in their efforts to transition into middle class.
In many parts of the country, nonprofit organizations have used the concept of hidden rules in different economic classes to help people living in poverty learn more about resources available to them as they struggle to leave poverty.
In Starkville, financial adviser Lynn Phillips-Gaines spearheaded Starkville Bridges Out of Poverty, which has held classes since 2011 with local residents in poverty looking for ways to improve their lives and the lives of their children.
Phillips-Gaines became interested years ago in programs to help with financial literacy but kept seeing participants continue to make many of the same decisions over and over again. Even in her professional life, the financial adviser identified people whose incomes placed them in the middle class but whose behavior suggested they still lived in the hidden rules of poverty’s economic class.
“You can tell those who come from poverty,” she said recently. “They still have the same behavior.”
That behavior includes spending money immediately when people get it, instead of saving it or paying debts.
Often, people living in poverty identify only with immediate desires, instead of thinking about long-term needs. For them, it’s hard to make plans beyond the immediate future.
However, Phillips-Gaines said people living in poverty often are turned off by language and attitudes of well-intentioned middle-class people who can appear condescending when they try to help, resulting in both sides misunderstanding each other.
Phillips-Gaines said after experiencing her life from the perspective of the middle class and learning in recent years more about the perspectives of people in poverty, she understands why they may have resentment toward middle-class people trying to help them.
“The good thing about people in poverty is they know that something isn’t right,” she said. “The people in the middle class think they know it all.”
Payne and others observe that many in the middle class believe that if poor people would just get jobs, stop having kids and get an education, their problems would be solved.
However, people living without safety nets or support systems and other important factors such as education are often prevented from transitioning out of poverty.
Phillips-Gaines tries to stay optimistic but acknowledges success sometimes must be viewed through a generational lens.
“I think where we’re going to have the impact with Bridges is with the kids,” she said.
Dependent on others
Back at the food bank on Eason Boulevard staffed with many volunteers from the St. Luke United Methodist Church, people still wait their turn for food after filling out paperwork.
Among the group of mostly women, Kim Brooks, 53, acknowledges that she wished she had resources that would keep her from needing the help of others.
Born with a birth defect that required an amputation of a leg, Brooks worked manual labor jobs for most of her adult life. A few year ago, she began receiving disability supplemental income after having more problems with her leg.
After paying rent and utilities, Brooks said her meager income usually doesn’t stretch far enough. She regularly depends on her family, friends and charities like the food bank.
Brooks has two adult children, one a teacher and another enrolled in college.
“I don’t have anything but my family,” she said, waiting at the food pantry. “I try not to bother my kids unless I really need them.”