A recent study by the organization Bread for the World listed both the 10 poorest and 10 hungriest states in the U.S. — Georgia made both lists, and University of Georgia professors are not surprised.
Despite the 0.5 percent decrease in poverty reported by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2013, Georgia was ranked the eighth hungriest state in the study, with 16.6 percent of the population facing food insecurity, and the fifth poorest state, with 19 percent poverty reported.
“The southeastern United States tends to have higher poverty levels and food insecurity than the rest of the United States,” said Sheri Worthy, head of the Department of Financial Planning, Housing and Consumer Economics at UGA. “It’s a complicated issue and a complex question.”
According to the study, which is based on Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Agriculture data, joining Georgia on both lists are Arkansas, Mississippi, Kentucky, Louisiana and Alabama, all of which are located in the South.
Worthy has been working on a project in the Southeast called Turning the Tide on Poverty, which involved going into selected communities with high poverty rates and forming study circles within the community to identify the main causes of poverty and possible solutions. She said the teams identified many possible reasons for poverty and hunger existing in certain areas.
The study circles, she said, highlighted factors such as transition in the household, including divorce, poor education systems, too few jobs, jobs that don’t pay enough and one simple explanation: Bad things can happen.
“People get sick, they get hurt, they don’t have health insurance, they lose their job,” Worthy said. “It’s possible that a family that is not in poverty can have something tragic happen and not really have that support system, and they end up in poverty.”
Even a person working full-time making minimum wage can be below the poverty line, especially when they have children, she said.
As to why the Southeast tends to have higher levels of poverty and food insecurity, Worthy said it is not an easy answer.
“Every community is just so unique and so different I’m not sure that we can say that all communities in the Southeast share this one characteristic,” she said.
Robert Nielson, an associate professor in the Department of Financial Planning, Housing and Consumer Economics, said in an email to The Red & Black that research from a few years pointed to several other possible contributing factors.
“They found the usual factors that often contribute to households' financial challenges — lower income, less job security, cost of housing, household composition (seniors and children at greater risk) and rates of participation in federal and state assistance programs that alleviate income and food hardships,” he said in the email.
Nielson said an effort by states to ameliorate these problems by expanding access to federal and state assistance programs has been tied to lower rates of “food-related hardships.”
“The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality has a nice report that effectively outlines how states' public policies are often tied to reduced hardships,” he said in the email. “On one hand the solution is deceptively simple — the public and private sectors can work together to develop an economic environment, where a well-trained labor force has access to good-paying and steady employment that offers family-friendly work supports such as child care and flexible work schedules, and where tax burdens aren't onerous.”
But Nielson said states each have their own expectations regarding philanthropic organizations and government involvement in free markets.
Emily McDonald, a senior biology major from Suwanee, said one of the most important things people can do is try and become more educated on the issue.
“I think the biggest problem is that a lot of people aren’t really fully aware, and that’s including myself,” she said.
McDonald said if the population at large remains ignorant, the problem is only going to get worse.
“Initially, the first thing we can do is just to become more educated on it and really dig into why things are the way that they are,” she said. “Then, from there, we can collaborate and maybe come up with some sort of thing to mitigate some of the issues.”