8.48 Feature Image
Photography by Lesha Patterson
“There’s nothing surer
The rich get rich and the poor get children
In the meantime, in between time
Ain’t we got fun?”
~Ain’t We Got Fun, 1921
The first news from the 2010 Census about poverty wasn’t good. On Sept. 14, the Associated Press reported that 46.2 million Americans were living in poverty—nearly one in six people—and that the poverty rate had climbed in one year from 14.3 percent to 15.1 percent. Tennessee, according to the same report, fared even worse, with a 16.7 percent poverty rate. In human terms—out of every 100 Tennesseans, almost 17 are living below the poverty line.
The news got worse. AP reported on Nov. 3 that the nation’s “poorest poor” now account for one in 15 people, or 20.5 million Americans. This means “an income of $5,570 for an individual and $11,157 for a family.”
Then, on Nov. 20, a study commissioned by the New York Times chimed in with a newly coined term: the “near poor”. The Census Bureau was using a new method of measuring poverty, called the Supplemental Poverty Measure, and this one showed that 51 million people have incomes less than 50 percent above the poverty line. This new tabulation was 76 percent higher than the figures released in September. “That places one in three Americans either in poverty or the fretful zone just above it,” said the NYT.
But not here in Chattanooga and Hamilton County, right? Things are booming here, aren’t they? Those statistics don’t apply to us…do they?
Even before all the statistics mentioned were published, researchers at the Brookings Institute had released a report on Oct. 7, 2010 called “The Great Recession and Poverty in Metropolitan America” using data from the Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey. These numbers confirmed, “the worst U.S. economic downturn in decades exacerbated trends set in motion years before, by multiplying the ranks of America’s poor.
“An analysis of poverty in the nation’s 100 largest metro areas, based on recently released data from the 2009 American Community Survey, indicates that:
“Several metro areas saw city poverty rates increase by more than 5 percentage points, while many suburban areas experienced increases of 2 to 4 percentage points between 2007 and 2009. The city of Allentown, PA saw a 10.2 percentage-point increase in its poverty rate, followed by Chattanooga, TN with an increase of 8.0 percentage points.” (Italics ours.)
This, taking into account that the old numbers, based on the 2000 census, were already bad enough: According to a presentation prepared by the City of Chattanooga Social Services Department in 2005:
“According to the 2000 Census, there were 26,843 individuals living in poverty in Chattanooga—17.9% of the total population—compared to 12.4% nationally.
“The poverty rate for children under 18 was 27% in Chattanooga—compared to 16.6% nationally.
“2002 data is only available at the county level. In Hamilton County, 12.9% of all individuals and 18.6% of all children were living in poverty.”
“We are seeing a big increase in people who have never needed help before,” says Al Tucker, a social services delivery manager for the Social Services Department. He estimated, depending on the month, that numbers are up between 25 and 35 percent this year.
But numbers don’t have faces. Numbers are easy to ignore. The Pulse asked contributor Cody Maxwell to help tell the story of poverty in Chattanooga.
I was standing in line early one Saturday at St. Elmo’s Amman Market with a dirty, barefoot 3 year old. Her baby belly was sticking out from under her favorite pink princess shirt, which stopped fitting her properly a year ago.
We’d been waiting all morning for mama to get in the shower. When we finally heard the water running. we snuck the keys out of her purse and ran out to the car. The plan was coming together. We’d whispered it the night before, in the dark just before going to sleep—tomorrow we’d sneak and go get chocolate.
The only thing standing between us and success were two grizzly old drunks in line in front of us at the store. My partner in crime took the time we spent waiting to reason with me. We should get two chocolates, she said, in case we couldn’t come to the store again later. We should get two of them so she could give one to her sister. And we had to hurry, she said, before mama finds us.
I told her I only had two dollars. I took one out of my billfold and gave it to her.
The first old drunk finally decided on his cigarettes and the line moved up one. I looked down at my partner and her belly still stuck out from under her dirty pink shirt. Her feet were dirty, too, and her hair needed combing. She held her chocolate in both hands, looking up at me smiling and trembling with excitement. “It’s gonna be good,” she said.
I turned back around and the old bearded drunk in front of me was holding a dollar bill inches from my face. “Here,” he said. “So she can get her sister one, too.”
I felt insulted and wanted to tell him that I had more money in my pocket, but I took the dollar so he’d stop dangling it in front of me. I gave it to my girl, told her to tell him thank you and go get another chocolate. She told him thanks and I watched her run barefoot and happy back down the candy aisle.
The old drunk was smiling when I turned back toward him. “I like little kids,” he said. His buddy was standing at the door laughing at him, telling him to hurry up. That old drunk waved bye and he went out the door with his friend. We got our chocolate and went back home.
The funny thing is it was that very day I was supposed to start writing this story. The very story you’re reading now. It was supposed to be about the face of poverty in Chattanooga. It was going to be a very solemn and sad story, a story that profiled people struggling to buy food and clothes for their children. People who didn’t see the end of November as the beginning of the holidays but as the beginning of a hard, cold season that could hurt them. And there I was feeling like a comical caricature in my own story. My trouble didn’t end there.
A few days before I’d gone down to see the Occupiers on the courthouse lawn to do a little research, to ask them personally what all the fuss was about, why they were doing what they were doing and to put a timely, politically serious spin on this story. It didn’t work out that way.
It was just after dark when I got to the courthouse. A group of four or five Occupiers sat near the sidewalk holding up posterboard signs with slogans. Sometimes cars honked at them as they drove by and when they did, those four or five people cheered.
Flowers were planted in very neat rows in the courthouse yard behind them. From the courthouse steps, where so many foreclosed homes had been auctioned off, Georgia Avenue’s churchless steeple could be seen, lit up by electric lights and pointing up to the heavens. A great big American flag hung loosely on a pole.
I approached a young man who was standing alone under one of the old trees. He wore smart glasses and was eating soup from a Styrofoam bowl. “It’s a beautiful night for a protest,” I said. He looked up at me over the corner of his bowl, unamused. I told him I was working on a story about poverty in Chattanooga and asked if he’d talk to me about the nature of the Occupy movement and what the Chattanooga group was hoping to achieve.
“All this is based on the larger movement, like what’s happening on Wall Street,” he said. “We’re trying to keep with the solidarity of that larger movement. We have meetings everyday at 7 p.m.”
When asked what the larger movement was moving toward, he explained that it was all about money. About getting rid of the big corporations and big banks that are destroying this country. “This country can’t continue this way. We’re not going to let it. The people don’t want it. We have live streaming on our computers from the other Occupy encampments. We’ve had people from Indianapolis and Nashville stop by. This can really be something if everybody would come together.”
I was wondering what the Chattanooga group was doing on its own, in the immediate area and for the benefit of impoverished people in this city.
“There’s a few of us who have a garden being grown down by the smoking area,” he explained. “They have vegetables growing in buckets right here on the courthouse lawn. We have organic farming classes and classes on sustainable living we give. People need to learn how to live on their own and not buy all the genetically engineered food. All the hormone-pumped stuff from Wal-Mart.”
Do you guys cook all this food out here? I asked him.
“No. People deliver it to us. People cook in their houses and bring us more than we can eat. Churches drop stuff off. We had somebody bring this soup and some bread down earlier today. You should go get yourself some.”
I declined and asked him directly what the group was doing for those living in real poverty in this city. There are people out there who are hurting, who may not have anything to eat tonight. The boy smiled shyly. “I don’t really have too much to say about that. I don’t know that much about it.
“We’re trying to keep with the solidarity of the larger movement,” he said, and bowed his head to swallow a few spoonfuls of his soup. When he looked back up and saw I was still standing there, he said, “Maybe you should talk to some of these other people here. They might be a little more articulate about what’s going on.”
Walking back down the street, I passed a bail bondsman sitting on a concrete ledge at the back door of the county jail. He was talking to a huddled, pajama-clad woman. She was sitting with her legs crossed on the ledge beside him, smoking cigarette after cigarette and holding onto herself. I overheard part of their conversation. They were waiting for her man to come out of the back door of the jail there. A little girl in a nightgown and dirty socks was at the woman’s feet, playing in the dead leaves on the sidewalk.
I’d had a handful of people in mind to profile for the story. It’s not hard to find people living below the statistical poverty line. All these people had enthusiastically volunteered their help when I asked. This will be great, they said. Finally they could say something about what it’s really like.
But by the time the deadline came there had been a mass change of heart. “I really don’t have it all that bad,” some said. One middle-aged guy was worried that it might hurt future romantic endeavors and one woman sent me an abrupt email. She didn’t want the pictures the photographer had taken of her to be used and she didn’t want to be in the story. “Thank You.”
Things were not looking good, but I understood where people were coming from. Nobody wants to be poor. But more importantly, nobody wants to be seen as poor. It’s something to hide, to cover up and be secretly ashamed of. Their reasons for backing out of the story made me see why I’d felt so insulted over the old drunk’s dollar. I didn’t want to be seen that way, either.
I had one prospect left. Java, a woman I met about a year ago.
When I met Java she was sleeping on abandoned loading docks on 11th Street. She’d left a bad relationship to sleep on the street. Her days were spent in the Community Kitchen and her nights in St. Catherine’s Women’s Shelter. About a year ago, after being on a waiting list for months, she moved into a small apartment on the 14th floor of Dogwood Manor.
I stopped by to see her last Sunday. Her new apartment was clean and warm and her living room window overlooked the river and North Chattanooga. She told me about the hoops she had to jump through to get the place. Her rent works on a sliding scale and she was coming up for an evaluation soon. “It don’t help to worry about it, though,” she said.
She makes jewelry to sell when she can. She gets a clothing allowance from the Community Kitchen and sometimes uses the money to buy beaded women’s shirts at thrift stores. She takes the beads off the shirts and uses them to make her jewelry.
The purpose of my visit was to interview her. I started the formalities of it but things soon digressed into simple conversation. I told her about sneaking out the other morning to get chocolate. “You can’t be feeding a baby chocolate that early in the morning,” she said. She told me a story from her hippie commune days.
“I used to take all the children to the Berkeley House Restaurant back then. I’d get a group of some of the children from the commune and maybe one or two more adults and everybody had to be clean. We’d have a nice meal. Great service. And the kids would learn their table manners. Everybody would behave and enjoy their dinner.
“I liked teaching the kids table manners. You never know. It may be nice to know sometimes which fork to use. Me, I don’t get worried about it. I like whatever fits my hand. Anyway. English riding lessons didn’t do me much good, either.”
When I told her about the incident with the drunk man and his dollar bill she laughed at me.
“Well, what’s there to be mad at? He wasn’t giving you a dollar anyway,” she said. “He was giving it to that little girl for candy. She didn’t get mad about it. If somebody offers you a dollar you take it.”
Java laughed again.
“This little guy Shorty at the Community Kitchen one time stuck his finger in my back like he was trying to rob me and says, ‘Give me all your money.’ And I was thinking like, ‘Heck, I got a bunch of pennies I don’t even like carrying around.’ And I said, ‘OK! Here! I’ll gladly give you all my money.’ I go to give it to him and he don’t want to take it. Now that’s pretty pitiful when you’re getting robbed and then they change their mind.
“Anyway. It was funny. He finally took them, though. I kind of shamed him into taking them. Lousy little robber, didn’t even want to take the money.”
At the Department of Social Services, Al Tucker notes that $1 million in stimulus funds helped many people last year, but that money was gone. Director Camilla Bibbs-Lee says that of the 14,000 families aided last year, many do not fit stereotypes. They are newly unemployed, helping elderly parents, people who are afraid they will lose their homes or apartments. Many just need assistance to pay their lighting or heating bills. They are, in fact, the working poor next door.
“This is not one agency’s problem,” she says. “Innovative ideas are needed to break the cycle. For-profit, nonprofit and government sectors need to work together…we need to change to a model geared to successful outcomes.”
In the meantime, in between time…is it your problem? Is it our problem? Time to find the answer.