Nation's economic difficulties hit close to home

By Megan R. Harrell
Star Correspondent
The United States has a long running association with prosperity, and poverty and hunger are terms that most Americans reserve for third world countries. However, data indicates consistently that the problem is much closer to home.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. has the highest percentage of individuals living in poverty of any western industrialized nation. Nearly 13 percent of Americans, 34.5 million people, are living at or below the nation's poverty line.
The poverty threshold is $16,660 in annual income for a family of four, and $13,003 for a household of three. The poverty situation is worse in the state of Tennessee, and even bleaker in Carter County. Almost 17 percent of Carter County residents could currently be labeled as living in poverty.
Many blame the sluggish economy and recent layoffs for the high percentage of low-income families, but one local teacher believes education plays a dominant role in poverty.
Joyce Guinn, program manager for the Carter County Adult Reading Program, believes education offers holistic improvements to those with low incomes.
"Education is of the utmost importance not only for people to better themselves economically, but also for them to better the lives of their families as well," Guinn said. "In order for us to help with poverty there is no doubt that we have to educate people."
The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics has drawn a direct relationship between education and income. Approximately 22 percent of low-income families consist of parents who do not have high school diplomas.
In Carter County only 13 percent of individuals over the age of 25 have received a bachelor's degree or higher. The figure is seven percent lower than the average for the state of Tennessee.
Guinn is well aware of education related problems facing many adults in the area. She stated that recent factory closings have left many uneducated middle-aged workers unemployed. The situation has caused many to re-evaluate the importance of education.
"We are booming right now. Our numbers have doubled compared to last year at this time," Guinn said. "Times have changed and people are beginning to realize that you have to have a high school diploma, or a G.E.D. to get a good job."
Where there are adults struggling to pull themselves out of poverty there are twice as many children affected. The poverty rate for children is higher than it is for any other age group in America. Children make up almost 40 percent of the nation's poor.
According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, over 12 million American children live in poverty. Five million of those children live in what is considered extreme poverty.
Guinn notes the difficulty of breaking the generation-to-generation cycle of poverty. If education is the key to ending poverty, then schooling must begin with parents.
"It is hard for us as educators to try and educate children when their parents aren't educated," Guinn said.
Some low-income children's immediate basic needs are being met locally. Children with no dental or health insurance are able to receive care at the Carter County/Elizabethton Health Department. Payment for services is based on household income, and payment programs can be established.
"We do not deny service to anyone, no matter what their income is," said Kathy Bowman, Carter County/Elizabethton Health Department nursing supervisor.
In addition to health services, mothers may apply for the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program. The program offers mothers nutrition counseling and education as well as monthly vouchers for healthy foods. Government programs like WIC are helping the effort to end poverty, and some headway is being made. Thousands of low-income families have received added boosts annually from federal earned income tax credit, and children in poverty benefit from state income tax credits.