Mississippi still leads nation in poverty

Lisa Chatman knows the sting of poverty

even though her nearly $30,000 a year job makes the mother of three

better off than many in this decaying neighborhood in the heart of

Jackson's inner city.

She hears it in the ring of gunfire that cuts through the night.

It is in the pain she feels when her children ask for a computer,

and she has to explain why she can't afford what has become a

commonplace feature in most homes in the U.S.

Chatman's story is one of urban poverty in a state that has the

nation's highest poverty rate.

Census figures released last week showed a slight decline in the

national poverty rate. In Mississippi, the rate is up from 19.9

percent in 1999 to the current 21.1 percent.

That Mississippi leads the nation in poverty is a distinction it

has long held. Today, state policies, grass-roots organizations,

community- and faith-based projects are all at work, trying to make

dents in a situation fueled by an undereducated population,

low-paying jobs and an antiquated tax system, among other factors.

The cycle began more than two centuries ago with a convergence

of forces that included the robust Mississippi River trade, the

plantation economy, and slavery, said Arthur Cosby, director of the

Social Science Research Center at Mississippi State University.

Once slavery ended, the work done by slaves became jobs for

freed blacks and poor whites across the South. Then in the 1950s

and 1960s, the agricultural industry was transformed by

mechanization and scientific advances, so there was no use for much

of that labor, Cosby said.

"This wave started before any of us ever thought of it, and

we're riding it," Cosby said.

Many, including Gov. Haley Barbour, say the creation of jobs is

the way to attack poverty.

But Ed Sivak of the Mississippi Economic Policy Center says the

salaries of quality jobs are what matter.

The center released a report in April that showed nearly

130,000, or 39 percent, of Mississippi's working families are

low-income. The report also said 35 percent of the state's jobs are

low-wage occupations.

Sivak said it's important to focus on training and skill

development, along with strengthening adult education programs, to

prepare workers for higher-paying jobs, especially in the health

care industry.

Barbour says he's doing that. He has approved millions of

dollars for work force training programs at the state's junior

colleges over the last three years.

"That strategy is working," Barbour said.

Sivak said revamping the state's regressive tax system also

would improve the economic conditions of the working poor. In

Mississippi, a person earning $30,000 a year is in the same tax

bracket as someone earning $300,000, he said.

"If we have a tax system that is placing the burden on

low-income, working families, it's another way of not giving them

the tools they need to move up," Sivak said.

Barbour has said he wants to overhaul the state's tax structure

within the next few years with the goal of a tax reduction.

Sivak, whose center is the policy initiative of the Enterprise

Corporation of the Delta, which works to build assets and

businesses in low-wealth communities, said another threat to

fighting poverty is predatory lending.

The ECD, through its Hope Credit Union and other services,

closed $16 million in mortgage loans in 2006, most of which went to

low-income families.

He's concerned, though, because in recent years many homes have

ended up in foreclosure because the borrowers were victims of

predatory lending.

"When people finally get into a home, they get into a (loan)

product that changes over the life of the home," Sivak said. "If

your monthly payment goes from $600 to $800 a month for a family

already living on the margin, they're going to lose that home."

Sivak said Mississippi needs stronger regulations to curtail

predatory lending practices that include saddling borrowers with

sub-prime loans unnecessarily.

Moving out of the neighborhood she's lived in for 11 years has

been an impossible task for Chatman. Two years ago, her then

7-year-old daughter survived being shot six times in a drive-by


"I've been trying to get into low-income apartments. Lord

knows, don't call HUD. They put you the waiting list," she said.

The 32-year-old mother is the first in her family to receive a

high school diploma. She attended Hinds Community College in

Raymond, but eventually dropped out.

She's working as a patient coordinator, a job she's had for more

than a year. But Chatman is swimming in debt after making bad

decisions when obtaining loans.

"I'm financially struggling, but I put myself in that

situation," she said. "I had got caught up in check-cashing

places. They fool you big time. I'm trying to get caught up on

opayments with them."

Saying she wants a better life for her children, she's enrolled

them in a program at Operation Shoestring, one of a handful of

faith-based organizations offering literacy and learning programs

for at-risk youth.

Chatman's children - Sylvester, 12; Desmond, 10, and Kateria, 9

- participate in an international pen pal sponsorship program

that's already yielding positive results.

"My boys will pick up a book every now and then, and they

weren't doing that before," she said. "My oldest one failed last

year. This year, it's a new him. He's doing so much better."

Operation Shoestring also sponsors a school dropout prevention

program in which volunteers make home visits to encourage parents

to read or help them learn literacy skills they can pass onto their

children, said the organization's director Robert Langford.

"We're a little bit like that pebble in the pond," Langford

said. "We're rmall and we can make a small ripple, but we can send

out those ripples that go on and on."