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
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
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
He's concerned, though, because in recent years many homes have
ended up in foreclosure because the borrowers were victims of
"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