Wayne Woodruff holds a sign to express his need for assistance on Friday, November 7, 2014, in Athens, Georgia. (Photo/ Brayden Robinson)

Poverty is a serious issue in Athens. The 2010 Census reported that we have a poverty rate of 37.8%, and the problem is only growing. According to a recent report by Grace Bagwell Adams, a professor at the University of Georgia, the lives of poor Athenians are getting worse.

While the Athens community has and continues to make steps to eradicate poverty, it’s not enough to tackle the systemic problems. The Athens community and government must act quickly and address the problem head-on.

Income inequality serves as a major cause of rising poverty in Athens. Adams’s report asserts that the “‘poverty problem’ is more accurately defined as an income inequality problem.” Wage growth over the past few decades has been sluggish and inconsistent. Despite economic gains, the average wage has the same purchasing power as the average wage 40 years ago, signalling that many workers are not experiencing the benefits of economic growth.

In addition to income inequality, racial economic inequality also contributes to poverty in Athens, the state of Georgia and nationally. Anthony Mallon, a professor in the UGA School of Social Work, believes that addressing racial inequalities, with respect to both income and wealth, are an essential component in any discussion of poverty.

“African-Americans have historically, and are currently, impeded in building wealth, such as  red-lining policies that prevented black families from buying homes in particular neighborhoods),” Mallon said.  “These impacts are intergenerational and long-lasting.”

The poor in Athens face a few major problems. First, many have lost access to healthcare. Between 2016 and 2018, the uninsured rose from 13% to 19%, a statistically significant change that will have adverse effects on citizens’ health. Second, many struggle to find affordable housing. 68% of impoverished families feel burdened by their monthly housing costs, and 10.4% of people below 130% of the federal poverty level fear that they will be evicted in the next three months. Third, many lower-income families do not have access to the child care they need to work for long hours.

“It’s a major obstacle to low-income families with children,” Mallon said. “Being able to work, for the number of hours they need to work, and often the number of jobs.”

Although the situation appears grave, there are some positive signs that the Athens community is working to address the issue. For example, Athens recently put aside $4 million to fund health care, child care, job training, and more.

There are also some promising strategies for helping the poor. The Transitional Jobs Strategy, for instance, provides short-term jobs that train workers to reduce employment barriers.

“Research shows that job training that is sector-based... if it involves a direct partnership with employers, and if it has as part of its training both classroom and hands-on skill training… are the most effective in helping people get into the workforce and move up the ladder,” Mallon said.

Thus, while poverty is a major issue for Athens, it seems possible for us to begin to fix the underlying causes and improve the lives of those in need. With effective policies, we can start to make Athens a better place to live for everyone.

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