One of the 1,077 low-income housing units in Albany sits occupied Thursday.
ALBANY, Ga. — According to statistics released by the U.S. Census Bureau on Thursday, the poverty rate in Dougherty County jumped 12.3 percent from 24.1 to 36.4 percent from 2007 to 2010 — the nation’s second-highest increase in counties with populations of 65,000 or greater.
The report, issued by National Public Radio and The New York Times, indicates that poverty is rising faster in Dougherty than any of Georgia’s largest counties.
A family of four living in poverty earns about $22,000 a year.
The report added that Dougherty County and other parts of Southwest Georgia reflect a deepening of poverty in many parts of the state. Georgia has the fifth-highest percentage of people living in what is called deep poverty, which is being driven by several factors.
“If you can imagine a family of four trying to live on $11,000 a year, we have three-quarters of a million Georgians living in that scenario,” Claire Richie of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute told NPR. “That needs to be a wakeup call that we can do better.”
Dougherty County Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard was stunned by the news.
“I’ve not seen the numbers, but what we’ve been working with is around 29 to 30 percent,” Sinyard said. “If it’s at 34.6 percent, then I am shocked because that figure is staggering. Poverty is the No. 1 issue facing our community today. We must respond to this trend because it has a major impact on everyone who lives or works in the county.
“The biggest problem is that the cycle of poverty is incredibly hard to break.”
According to census figures, the county’s per capita income dropped from $19,688 in a 2007-09 survey to $17,265 in 2010. Median household income also fell from $34,597 in 2005-09 to $28,444 in 2010.
The 2007 to 2010 county numbers are also significant when taking into account that Merck Chemical closed in 2007 and Cooper Tire shuttered in 2009 at the cost of nearly 1,800 well-paying jobs.
The job losses, coupled with a stubborn recession, have been noticed by Albany Housing Authority Executive Director Dan McCarthy.
“We’ve seen a steady increase in people needing our services over the past three years,” McCarthy said. “Our waiting list is long, and some have been closed entirely because the wait was unrealistic. Our vacancy rate is way down. We have nine out of 1,077 units vacant, but they are being prepared for tenants.”
McCarthy noted that the AHA’s current waiting list has more than 2,000 names on it. To determine its rents (which range from $120 to $130 per month), HUD uses a median income sliding scale based on $48,000 per year.
The lowest rate is 30 percent, which is around $14,600 per year. More than 1,900 of the 2,000 on the waiting list qualify for this rate.
“Previously, people did not want to use us, but as the economy got progressively worse and the poverty rate increases more people needed our services,” McCarthy said.
University of Georgia Housing and Consumer Economics Professor Doug Bachtel, who publishes the Georgia County Guide, said there are several reasons for rural Georgia’s dire economic straits.
“Well, there is this little thing going on called the recession,” Bachtel said, “and it’s having an impact all over the country, particularly in rural areas.”
Bachtel pointed to four major reasons for Dougherty County’s soaring poverty rate.
“You really have an economic triple-whammy for y’all going on down there,” Bachtel said. “You have a large African-American population (68 percent), and those folks are really suffering because of low education, low skills and the lack of a diversified economy. Also births to unwed African-American mothers is among the highest percentage in the state (nearly 65 percent).
“This is where the cycle of poverty starts. If you are born poor, you usually stay poor.”
Bachtel said births to unwed mothers is a major problem in Dougherty County and a leading predictor of poverty.
“A significant number of blacks and whites considers birth out of wedlock to be no problem, and it is a disgrace,” Bachtel said. “This affects infant mortality rates, it affects dropout rates and deepens the cycle of poverty. This is a failure of black leadership within the community.
“A pencil-necked white guy can’t come down there and tell them to keep their pants up; that has to come from the black leaders. And right now I think there is a problem within the leadership.”
Darrell Sabbs, community benefits director for Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, said he thinks Bachtel isn’t looking at the big picture.
“I disagree (with Bachtel) somewhat; there are many more factors involved,” Sabbs said. “You can’t lay sole responsibility of girls having babies early on just one segment of the community. That is wrong. There’s also peer pressure, there is the media — the hip-hop mentality is a factor that influences attitudes. It is a foreign language to the baby boomer generation, but the kids understand it and are drawn to it.”
Sabbs added that change must occur at the community level.
“Sex is recreational to many young black males,” he said. “We have to close that gap and provide other recreational opportunities. The whole community needs to play a role — churches, schools and girls should also have roles.”