The Colors of Small Town Poverty

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Poverty in small town America is often overlooked, and the children of small town poverty are ignored. This fact was brought home to me several years ago when we moved back to my old, very poor neighborhood in a small town in central Oklahoma. The move was necessitated by the need among our elders for care as they experienced declining health. We settled into my grandparents home which had for years been the family base. It was a grand old farmhouse, in need of significant repair, that had been moved into town in the early 1900s. (Actually it was the amalgam of two old houses, but that’s another story.) The neighborhood had fallen even further downward than when I lived there as a child and it wasn’t exactly upscale even then.

The adjacent lot where our neighbor–one of the town’s more colorful characters–lived was overgrown with waist high weeds entangled around a half dozen rusted hulks of old cars, tractors, pickup trucks and assorted farm implements, all beyond any hope of restoration. Rusting skeletons. Just down the road, the first elementary school in town, abandoned and partially caved in on itself, was used by another town hermit as a residence. Across the street in mid-block an abandoned house was surrounded by overgrown vegetation. A 1930s era pickup truck sat in the yard on bare rims, rusting away. Across from that lot an old city fire truck, driven there perhaps forty years ago by a collector who had long since moved away, sat in a collapsed garage with a full grown elm tree thrusting through its bed.

Our neighbors to the north kept a hog for slaughter and our neighbors to the south hunted deer in season and fished, not for sport, but for food. A block south was a 1950s motel with individual one room cabins. Located on Route 66, it now served as short term rental accommodations for those who could afford no other.

This was small town poverty. Its color is rusty metal red and weed brown.

The Stresses of Poverty

At the end of the workday in early evening I would go out on the front porch and often I would hear shouting and screaming from different places in the neighborhood. The police were frequent visitors as the shouting sometimes turned into fighting. Mostly domestic violence. Sometimes late at night it would awaken us from sleep. The sound of poverty is yelling and shouting. People stressed to the breaking point. Day in, day out and especially at the end of the month.

This remembrance occurred as I read the Annie E. Casey Foundation report on children living in poverty. It says concentrated poverty, defined as areas where 30 percent or more households fall below the federal poverty threshold, is on the rise. The 2010 federal poverty threshold is $22,314 per year for a family of four.

The report estimates 7,879,000 children in the U.S. live in poverty, and the number has increased from 9% to 11% over the last decade. The number in concentrated poverty has risen 25% since 2000. These statistics make my heart ache. As the Casey report says, families with children living in poverty “are more likely to face food hardship, have trouble paying their housing costs, and lack health insurance than those living in more affluent areas. Children living in areas of concentrated poverty are also more likely to experience harmful levels of stress and severe behavioral and emotional problems than children overall.”

For the nearly 8 million children under age 18 living in areas of concentrated poverty in the United States, critical resources for their healthy growth and development – including high-performing schools, quality medical care and safe outdoor spaces – are often out of reach. The chance that a child will live in an area of concentrated poverty has grown significantly over the last decade. — Data Snapshot on High Poverty Communities, Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Going to the Mountain

I was talking to a little boy who lived next to the firetruck with the tree growing through it and he told me his grandmother was taking him to “the mountain” to ride his bike that evening. We were in central Oklahoma where there are no mountains, so I was curious. I questioned him, “What mountain?”

“You know, the one down by the big lake at the bottom of the hill in the woods,” he said.

After a few more descriptive tidbits, I realized the mountain was the rubble from city excavations dumped alongside the city sewage treatment facility at the edge of town. This was his playground. And, in fact, I recalled having played there myself at his age. But things should have changed for the better since then.

And that’s what make my heartache. Things, apparently, haven’t changed that much, at least not for the children who live in neighborhoods trapped in poverty. They are invisible. And in the inflamed rhetoric so prevalent today, they are viewed with disdain, not with concern. Added costs, a burden.

For me, the church was a way out of that neighborhood and the debilitating conditions it harbored. The people of the church encouraged, nurtured, supported and provided opportunities that helped me to see a world beyond the “mountain” by the edge of the sewage plant. But today in my denomination we’re talking about small local congregations as ineffective, inefficient and a drain on resources. And it makes me worry about the children who know the local police officer better than they know the local pastor. They know the angry words and violent behavior better than they know lovingkindness and peaceful living.

Ways to Move Forward

Overall, the poor are overlooked in our society. The rural poor are invisible. The Casey report makes several proposals for addressing poverty. Mostly it refers to urban poverty, but never the less these are steps in the right direction:

  • Promoting community change efforts that integrate physical revitalization with human capital development through public/private partnerships to create mixed-income communities;
  • Leveraging “anchor institutions” to build strong, supportive communities for children and families such as hospitals, universities and other “anchor institutions” to create cradle-to-career pipelines that improve opportunities for disadvantaged children;
  • Promoting proven and promising practices in the areas of work supports, asset building and employment with intensive, employment-focused programs targeting working-age public housing residents through United Way, community colleges and other organizations for integrated delivery of education, employment training, work supports, financial coaching and asset building services;
  • Connecting neighborhood improvements to citywide and regional efforts. Increasingly, families must look to the surrounding metropolitan region to access opportunities;
  • Increasing access to affordable housing in safe, opportunity-rich communities for low-income families, particularly families of color. Strategies for achieving this goal include inclusionary zoning, tenant eligibility guidelines that prohibit discriminatory admission practices, marketing to attract a diverse applicant pool, and housing mobility programs for families with Section 8 vouchers.

From Rural to City Life

These do not fully address the dilemma of rural poverty. As we rush headlong toward urban, suburban and exurban living, the rural poor, as rural life in general, becomes less visible and more neglected.

I would add:

  • strengthening regional community colleges and expanding their training to include technical skills;
  • installing broadband into rural areas and making it accessible through public schools and libraries;
  • strengthening public education.

The rural and small membership churches are, or can be, local anchor institutions that make a difference. Considering a more expansive role for small membership churches could move them from being viewed as liabilities to assets. This, too, is discounted in much of the conversation about how and where ministry should be carried out today. And it begs the question that Jesus was asked by some of his followers when he told them how he wanted them to behave: to care for the sick, ill, imprisoned, thirsty, and poorly clothed, those who are overlooked. To care for them is as if they were caring for him, Jesus said. But his followers asked, “Lord, when did we see you?”

I’d hazard a guess he would say to me, “When you spoke with the little boy who was going to play near the city sewage yard. That was me.”

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