State poverty rates increase, says analyst

October 24th, 2013

        One in every four Mississippians lives in poverty, according to 2012 census data. This is an increase from one in five reported in 2007, before the recession began. The median income in Mississippi is $37,095, $13,000 below the national average, dropping more than $3,000 in the past five years.
        An analysis by the Mississippi Economic Policy Center (MEPC) of the census report released in September showed surprising increases in both the overall poverty rate and in child poverty.
        “We don’t usually see that kind of jump in a five-year period,” said Sara Miller, senior policy analyst for MEPC. The report also found Mississippi had the largest increase in poverty among all the states from 2011 to 2012. While total poverty increased to 24.2 percent in the state, child poverty increased from 28.9 percent to 34.6 percent in 2012.
        Miller said some of the challenges to overcoming poverty in this state include access to health care, mental health care, education and transportation. “Transportation is a big issue in the state because there is not much public transportation here,” she said. She also said more opportunities for education, particularly higher education, would help individuals and families improve their futures.
        Sisters Ann Brooks, SNJM, and Teresa Shields, SNJM, echoed that sentiment. Sister Brooks is one of two doctors at the Tutwiler Clinic in Tallahatchie County while Sister Shields is the director of the Jonestown Family Center in Coahoma County – both in the Delta. Both women said a lack of transportation prevents people in their communities from being able to find jobs, decent food and medical care.
        “We lost our clinic in 2006. Since then we have seen a huge increase in untreated diabetes, hypertension and teenage pregnancy,” Sister Shields said of Jonestown. “Because we have no public transportation people have to use ambulances and the ER,” she added. These kinds of health problems can leave a person permanently disabled. She also explained that most jobs are an hour or more away so those who can’t afford cars are not able to get what few jobs are available.
        Neither Jonestown nor Tutwiler have a grocery store so those without transportation have to rely on mainly processed foods available at convenience stores in town, which also impacts the health in the community. “We don’t have a lot of people without food, but the food they get is cheap and starchy – it turns to sugar – and it becomes another situation altogether,” said Sister Brooks. Unhealthy food contributes to obesity, diabetes and heart disease, according to Sister Brooks. A family from Tutwiler was featured in a documentary about this issue called “A Place at the Table.”
        Both women also reflected on how poverty impacts the mental health of the people in their community. They both see clients with depression, anxiety and low self-esteem, which can make an already bad situation worse. Sister Brooks said she can see a difference when someone can gain some stability, such as when a person gets a home through Habitat for Humanity. “When they have their own house suddenly they stand up straighter, they are important, they take their medicine and take care of themselves,” she said. She pointed out that these clients must participate in the building process and feel empowered by helping themselves.
        “In order to address poverty, we need to invest more in education – both K-12 and higher education, said MEPC’s Miller. “Higher educational attainment is associated with higher earnings and lower unemployment. Median earnings for someone who has attended college is about $2,500 per year higher than someone with a high school degree and almost $9,000 higher than someone who did not finish high school. Only 23 percent of Mississippi workers have a bachelor’s degree or higher,” she explained. The sisters agree with MEPC that education would help alleviate poverty.
        Preschool and after-school programs offer kids in both Delta communities a safe and structured way to spend their time. “One of the most encouraging things to me is the kids are so sweet,” said Sister Shields. She described how they come in from school happy and affectionate. “We are an oasis of safety and protection for them,” she said. The schools in her area have no truancy officer and many dropouts turn to crime or drugs to fill their time.
        The Tutwiler Clinic has an after-school program offering employment to local teenagers, homework help, access to computers and a gym. “To keep them in a safe environment and a place of peace has a whole lot to do with good mental health,” said Sister Brooks.
        Sister Brooks equated education with self-confidence. “When people care about themselves — when they learn how to care about themselves — things change. They can get a job, they feel they can learn new skills,” she said.
        Sister Brooks closed by reflecting on how complicated this issue is to address in broad terms since census numbers are really individual people and families. “To address poverty only from an economic point of view is to leave out some important things,” she said. Helping people break the cycle of poverty improves bodies, minds, spirits and whole communities.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Miller’s analysis compared data from the 2007 census to the numbers from 2012. The recession started in 2008. It is posted on the MEPC website, Learn more about the Jonestown Family Center by visiting Learn more about the work at the Tutwiler Clinic and community center by visiting

Back to main news page