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Education May Pave the Way Out of Poverty

October 29, 2008

During these difficult economic times, most of us are attempting to hold on tight to what we need to feel secure. It may be a job, a retirement account, good credit, or heaven forbid, a home. And then it may be all of those things.

But what about those who don't have jobs, or at least good paying jobs, those who don't have savings of any kind, and those who do not have the slightest bit of hope they will ever be financially able to buy a house, let alone ever own one outright? Poverty is not just a problem we see on television or read about in the newspaper, and it is not just a problem that occurs in a faraway place in another country. It exists right here in the United States, a place believed by many to be the wealthiest country in the world.

First, let's start with some shocking facts. According to information available from the U. S. Bureau of the Census, as defined by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the average poverty threshold for a U.S. family of four in 2004 was an annual income of $19,307; for a family of three, $15,067; for a family of two, $12,334; and for an individual, $9,645. According to a census summary report, there were 7.9 million families who met that criteria and who were defined as living in poverty (12.7 percent) in 2004, up from 7.6 million in 2003.

A total of 37.0 million people (12.7 percent) were living in poverty in the U. S. in 2004. That figure was up from 35.9 million (12.5 percent) in 2003.

I think you will agree these figures are astounding, and they have almost certainly grown since 2004. Our present economy is in miserable shape, and the number of unemployed workers in this country continues to rise daily. There is not a single morning that I don't read in my local newspaper about another company laying off workers, and many of these are large corporations with thousands of employees. And our expert economic forecasters predict the situation is likely to continue for some time.

Unfortunately, poverty is something that has existed in our country since it was first settled. Many immigrants came to this great country seeking work that would pave the way to a better way of life. But a large number of these immigrants, especially those who settled in large metropolitan areas, continued to exist in poverty for several generations, in spite of their hard work. Some of these immigrants included the many Irish, German, and Jewish people who came to this country during the 1800's. Today, most immigrants, especially those who don't speak English at all and who have arrived in this country during recent years, are consistently among the poorest of the poor in our large cities.

During the early 1980's, I was privileged to have had a job that allowed me to see first-hand how people, young and old, with limited incomes, really lived. I was required, as part of my job, to visit certain families and individuals in their homes in several states, including some located in the South, some in the Southwest, and a few north of that imaginary line dividing the North from the South. My experiences during that time allowed me to develop a broader understanding of the plight of others, and it caused me to have the values and beliefs that make me, in part, who I am. Making ends meet continues to be challenging, to say the least, for most of our country's elderly and disabled, even today.

Rural America has also experienced its share of poverty over the years. My family is truly blessed that we survived life in the Mississippi Delta during the 1940s and 1950's. Although I was quite young when we moved to the big city, I still remember the rampant poverty around us in the rural area where we lived. One thing I learned from those early years in rural Mississippi is that values don't have to be compromised simply because a person is poor. There are plenty of poor people who "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps," so to speak, and rise above the life to which they were born. You have met these people, and so have I. Some may even be friends and relatives. They possess strong moral beliefs, integrity, and exhibit genuine regard for those around them.

Being poor does not mean one cannot become educated. Thankfully, my parents instilled in me early on that an education was of the utmost importance in my young life and the lives of my siblings. And my personal belief is that one's own will, coupled with an education, can pave the way out of poverty, anywhere, anytime. I know, however, there are some who may argue that an education, even an early one, is often the largest stumbling block of all.

Presently, in our large metropolitan areas, a new lower middle class is emerging. More and more young people are going directly to work, soon after leaving high school, at jobs paying an hourly wage with no benefits, with absolutely no future. These workers, many of whom are employed in service industry jobs, are the backbone of this new class of workers who need at least two employed people in the household even to meet basic living expenses. Home ownership is simply out of the question, at least for the immediate future. If a child is born into this family, there is often not enough money to pay for child care, and the parents become dependent on relatives to take on the caregiver role.

But is there light at the end of the tunnel for these young people? One solution may be that high school students who either can't meet academic requirements for college, those who just don't have the funds necessary to go to college, or students who just do not have an interest in pursuing a higher education for whatever reason, should be offered some type of technical training before they graduate from high school.This type of technical training, coupled with part-time internships, might possibly offer jobs with improved working conditions, higher pay, and most of all, hope for a better future.

I certainly do not have all the answers. And I don't believe anyone does. But finding ways to help this country's people get out of poverty is something our next leader needs to take very seriously.

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Janice Tracy is a native Mississippian who writes about genealogy and family history.  She writes two blogs, Mississippi Memories and Cemeteries of Dancing Rabbit Creek.