Poverty numbers sober eye-openers

The numbers the Census Bureau released last week regarding Dougherty County were, in a word, depressing.

We’ve known for some time that Southwest Georgia in general, and Dougherty County in particular, have lagged behind the rest of the state in economic development. And the recovery has been much slower here than it has been elsewhere in Georgia.

But the census numbers showing a sharp spike in the poverty rate for Dougherty — the second-largest jump for any county in the United States — was sobering, to say the least.

In 2007, at the onset of the recession, 24.1 percent — a little less than one out of every four Dougherty County residents — was living in poverty conditions. For a family of four, that means the annual family income is about $22,000 ... or less.

By April 2010, the percentage of Dougherty residents with income below the poverty threshold had increased by more than half. According to the numbers released Thursday, nearly two of every five Dougherty County residents — 36.4 percent — are impoverished. While that’s still below Clarke County’s 36.7 percent, the 12.3 percent increase was enough to get Dougherty ranked as the No. 2 county in the nation for increasing poverty in the period.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Albany Housing Authority reports that all of its 1,077 low-income housing units — except for nine that are being prepared for tenants — are occupied while nearly double that capacity — about 2,000 names — are on waiting lists.

The causes of poverty aren’t hidden, though the problems are too often ignored because there is no easy fix. The birthrate of children to mothers who are single and too young is out of sight. (In 2007, there were 75.5 births per 1,000 girls ages 15-19 in Dougherty.) The education and literacy rates are short of where they should be. Two major employers — Cooper Tire and Rubber Co. and Merck — closed during the period covered by the census report, killing jobs that paid well, and nothing came in to replace them.

And then there’s the recession itself, which resulted in able employees losing their jobs through reductions in force. Add third- and fourth-generation public assistance recipients — families where a safety net has become an accepted lifestyle — and a jump in poverty seems obvious.

We do have people who are trying to address the problems from various directions. The Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity’s Project Alpha works with young African-American males on responsibility in relationships. The Teen Pregnancy Prevention Coalition works to keep girls from becoming unwed mothers, as do organizations such as Girls Inc., which encourages girls to lead safe, healthy and productive lives. Leadership Albany works to get books into the hands of young children. Strive2Thrive works with families to help them acquire skills that will get them off welfare rolls and onto workplace rosters.

Those are all worthy programs, and there are others. But they are not enough to stem this tide — though we do wonder just how much worse the numbers would have been if these programs did not exist.

What is needed here is leadership. Someone has to step to the podium and make eradicating poverty in Dougherty County the No. 1 goal. There has to be buy-in by the community. There has to be a plan conceived and implemented that will look at the issue from all sides, assess what is already being done effectively and then develop an overall approach that will have a greater effect.

There are only two ways this can go, and we’ve already seen where one of those directions has taken us. The community will either come together and reverse the course, or the path to destruction will accelerate.

It’s our choice.