Journalism Partners on Poverty and Opportunity

Spotlight is growing a network of content partners across the country as part of our poverty journalism project. In early 2022, we launched a Poverty Journalism Collective for several dozen Mississippi newsrooms. Funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the collective allows participants to republish stories from fellow members that touch on poverty and opportunity topics. If you’re interested in sharing content generally or working together on a specific story or set of stories, please contact Bill Nichols.

Click here for a list of our journalism partners, and see below for their recent stories on poverty-related issues.

South Jackson Welcomes Money-For-Plasma Operation As Experts Warn About Poverty Links

Mississippi Free Press

by Kayode Crown

July 8, 2022

On June 22, 2022, ImmunoTek Bio Centers LLC opened a plasma-donation center at 2055 Raymond Road in Jackson, Miss. The company offers money on debit cards to donors. Photo courtesy ImmunoTek Bio Center LLC

Darryl Lorenzo Wellington’s rent was due, and he had insufficient funds in the bank to take care of it when he saw an advertisement offering him $50 if he donated his plasma at Biotest Plasma in Santa Fe, N.M. He went there, donated his plasma, and left feeling good about the pay and thinking he could do the same thing next month to pay for rent, possibly donating twice a week.

“But the following day my body received an impromptu schooling in the price tag of the world I had entered,” the journalist, artist and the 2021-23 poet laureate of Santa Fe, N.M., wrote in 2014 in a piece that the Economic Hardship Reporting Project supported. “It happened at about 5 o’clock the next (morning).”

“Unexpectedly, with no apparent cause or logical relationship to physical exertion, I felt my legs go rubbery,” he continued. “This was something more than ‘mild faintness’ and particularly disturbing because of the aspect of a random attack.”

“I suddenly felt so weirdly fatigued that I couldn’t stand on my feet. I barely reached the couch before I passed out for five hours straight.”

Plasma Donation Facility Opens in South Jackson

Plasma makes up 55% of the blood volume without the platelets, red and white blood cells, and South Jackson residents can now give theirs in exchange for hundreds of dollars per month at the newly opened ImmunoTek Plasma Center on Raymond Road.

In a June 17, 2022, press release, ImmunoTek Bio Centers LLC announced the opening of its 63rd facility, which started operations on June 22, 2022. The Louisiana-based company projects that the facility’s operations will help revitalize that part of the city. The pharmaceutical industry uses plasma to create products for treating different diseases, including immune deficiencies and bleeding disorders.

Darryl Lorenzo Wellington, a journalist and artist, who is the 2021-23 poet laureate of Santa Fe, N.M., says donating plasma resulted in an intense physical impact. Photo courtesy Darryl Lorenzo Wellington

“The economic impact of a typical plasma donation center in a community is estimated at approximately $5 million per year,” the company said in the press release. “It is located in a part of Jackson that is undergoing revitalization, and the center’s leadership believes ImmunoTek Plasma will be a financial boost to the area.”

An ImmunoTek Plasma Center now occupies a building that housed the Super D drug store, which closed in 2008 “for lack of business,” WLBT reported at the time. Over the last several weeks, construction workers have transformed the old building.

A spokeswoman for the company, who works as a public-relations professional for the Louisiana-based marketing firm Deveney, sent the press release to the Mississippi Free Press and stated that the $5 million-per-year projected benefits include job creation and donor compensation. The spokeswoman declined to have her name disclosed.

This banner on the premises of the newly opened ImmunoTek Plasma Center in Jackson, Miss., promises hundreds of dollars per month for prospective donors. Photo by Kayode Crown

“So we are able to track that over the years of opening our centers,” she said during a phone interview on June 27, 2022. “And that’s been about what the average is for different communities; and we have them in multiple states in many, many different cities—so that number comes from looking at historical data for all of these different cities.”

ImmunoTek said in the June 17, 2022, press release that it has centers operating in 12 states, has 31 centers under construction, and is planning an additional 63 centers over the next three years.

Mayor: Looking ‘Forward to Many Years of Economic Success’

Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba welcomed the company in an email to the Mississippi Free Press on June 29, 2022.

“We are very excited Immunotek Plasma has chosen a second Mississippi location in south Jackson and wish them the best moving forward,” he wrote. “We look forward to many years of economic success in their noble efforts to meet a worldwide need for donated plasma, which can be the difference between life and death.”

ImmunoTek Bio Centers LLC opened its first facility in Mississippi in October 2020 at Horn Lake in DeSoto County.

The Economist argued in a 2018 article that many developed countries ban paying people for their blood plasma, which creates a global dependence on its supply from the United States. Those who allow the practice permit less frequent donation.

“Plasma is used to make drugs such as factor VIII, which helps hemophiliacs’ blood to clot, and vaccines for rabies, tetanus and Rhesus disease,” the newspaper said. “Almost 50m (liters) of it were used in 2015, enough to fill 20 Olympic swimming pools.”

Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba said he looks forward to the economic success the siting of ImmunoTek Plasma Center may bring to south Jackson. Photo courtesy Chokwe A. Lumumba

“America, the OPEC of plasma, produces 15 of those swimming-pool equivalents,” the newspaper added. “Forget steel and cars: plasma makes up 1.6% of America’s total goods exports.”

ImmunoTek Chief Operating Officer Blair McKinney explained that the United States supplies two-thirds of the world’s plasma, with demand increasing yearly.

“Plasma has a unique make-up, and it cannot be synthesized in a laboratory,” McKinney added in the press release. “The new center in Jackson is a way to help patients who depend on donated plasma for their quality of life, and will be an economic driver for the community.”

Treating Blood and Plasma Donations Differently

The Food and Drug Administration Agency requires that blood donated for money be marked as such but has no such requirement for plasma donation, noted.

“Aside from the ickiness of handing out literal blood money, the FDA worries that paying donors would jeopardize the safety of the blood supply,” the health, medicine and life sciences journalism website added. “No one with a blood-borne illness is eligible to donate, but the agency worries that if money were on the line, donors might lie about their health or their risk behaviors.”

The website says that the FDA takes a different approach to plasma because it undergoes a different process. “The reason is that plasma collected this way never goes straight into another person,” said. “It’s broken into many different protein products that will become pharmaceuticals.”

“Along the way, these components are processed to remove or kill any virus stowaways.”

‘Similar But Different’

The ImmunoTek Bio Centers LLC spokeswoman told the Mississippi Free Press that plasma donation is “similar but different to donating blood.”

“If you’ve ever gone to a blood center where you can donate blood, it’s similar to that, except they extract the blood from you. Then there’s a machine that’s all self-contained—it’s next to each individual bed—and they separate the plasma from the red and white blood cells that’s in your blood, and they put that back in you,” she said.

“From there, the plasma can be frozen, if need be, and then later that plasma is used to create medicine that people use all over the world for a variety of different illnesses and disorders,” she explained.

ImmunoTek Chief Operating Officer Blair McKinney noted that the United States provides two-thirds of the world’s plasma supply, with growing annual demand. Photo courtesy Blair McKinney

“Hospitals use it for transplant patients, cancer patients, burn victims, some people who have bleeding disorders, autoimmune diseases—there are a lot of different uses for plasma,” she added.

While the American Red Cross recommends plasma donation once every 28 days and up to 13 times a year, the Food and Drug Administration Agency determined that plasma donation can take place twice a week, but not more than once in a two-day period.

The FDA demands that the plasma center explain the risks to donors such as the risk of citrate anticoagulant, which prevents the clotting of the blood cells that return to the body after separation from plasma. The FDA wrote that the risks also include tingling lips or fingers or muscle cramping.

Medical historian Harriet A. Washington linked Wellington’s feeling of fatigue the next day after he donated plasma to sodium citrate, used to prevent coagulation of the blood cells. She explained that sodium citrate binds to calcium in the body, making it no longer available to the body, and some people have a strong reaction to that.

“We know that some people respond badly to sodium citrate,” Washington told Wellington. “The worst case is rare: extreme hypocalcaemia, which can be fatal.”

ImmunoTek Bio Center LLC says that plasma donors gain monetary compensation for their time, while patients get life-saving medicine from the donated plasma. Photo courtesy ImmunoTek Bio Center LLC

“But more often, people will suffer fainting, tingling and numbness, muscle contractions, or even seizures,” she added. “Walking around with depleted calcium can be extremely dangerous. It can lead to serious health-care issues.”

The FDA cautioned that people may manifest allergic reactions “such as flushing, itching, hives, abdominal cramps, difficulty breathing, chest pain, or bronchospasm, which may vary in severity from mild to life-threatening; nausea, vomiting, light-headedness, fainting, or seizures” as a result of donating plasma.

In the June 17 press release, ImmunoTek explained that it prioritizes safety. “Employee and donor safety are top priorities, (and) the company uses cutting-edge equipment and follows COVID-19 protocols to ensure a safe, clean, and comfortable experience for donors and employees alike,” the company wrote. “Following an in-house screening along with a medical history and physical exam conducted by medical professionals, donors can roll up their sleeves and donate plasma much the same way as a blood donation.”

“The donation process uses a sterile, self-contained, and automated process called plasmapheresis,” they added. “Plasma can be donated up to twice a week, and donors are compensated for the time spent while donating.”

The Intersection of Plasma Donation and Poverty

In a 2021 report, Business Insider noted that many Americans donate plasma as a financial lifeline. “In the 90 minutes it takes to donate, they make five times the federal minimum wage,” the news outlet added.

The website agrees, adding that plasma donors get about $50 per extraction. “[S]ome pay more, some less,” the website added. “For many donors, the payment goes a long way in paying for food, rent, medicine, and other basic needs.”

Joseph Dupree, a Jackson State University and Belhaven University graduate, serves as the newly opened plasma facility director. Quotes from him in the June 17 press release emphasized the possible impact of the new center on the local economy. “This is a great environment for donors and employees,” he said. “We financially compensate donors for their time, and in turn, they spend their money supporting local businesses.”

“This new center will be a big boost to South Jackson,” Dupree added.

Dupree was the assistant center manager at CSL Plasma until early in 2022, when he joined ImmunoTek. CSL Plasma, which has two locations in Jackson and one in Gulfport, also offers cash for plasma donation.

Octaplasma, located in Greenville, Miss., does the same.

In a report exploring the intersection of poverty and the location of plasma-donation centers in 2017, ABC News noted that the U.S. supplies 94% of the paid plasma used around the world and that nearly 80% of the plasma centers in the U.S. are located in America’s “poorer neighborhoods.”

“Many of the people who frequent these centers to give their plasma are full-time workers and low-income Americans who are just unable to make ends meet,” the media outlet added.

This chart illustrates an increase in plasma donations between 1999 and 2019 in the United States. Source Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan

On June 28, 2022, when this reporter visited the new Immunotek Plasma Center location, a banner announced the facility’s opening and notified the public that they can earn hundreds of dollars monthly, with walk-ins welcome. During the visit, Dupree, the director, was leaving the facility after the day’s work and declined to speak with the reporter, citing a lack of green light from the headquarters in Louisiana.

The spokeswoman promised to facilitate the interview with someone from the company during the June 27 phone interview with the Mississippi Free Press. In an email to the Mississippi Free Press on June 29, 2022, she wrote, “Might you be available for a phone interview TOMORROW (Thursday)?”

But after answering affirmatively, the Mississippi Free Press could no longer get in touch with the spokeswoman. She did not return repeated calls and emails about the proposed interview between June 30 and July 5, 2022.

Link Between Plasma Donation and Poverty

Three University of Michigan researchers—Analidis Ochoa, H. Luke Shaefer and Andrew Grogan-Kaylor—revealed their findings in 2021 on the link between blood plasma donation and poverty from a nationwide survey. “Non-Hispanic Black people make up almost 21.5% of the population in census tracts with plasma centers, compared to 13.4% of those without plasma centers,” they wrote. “The results are similar for (people of) Hispanic origin.”

“In contrast, while 50.8% of residents in census tracts with plasma centers are non-Hispanic white, the proportion of non-Hispanic white residents is 12 percentage points higher in census tracts without plasma centers at 62.8%,” they added. “Those living in census tracts with plasma centers were also more likely to live in poverty, most noticeably deep poverty, below 50% of the poverty line, and 100% of the poverty line.”

“The rate of overall poverty was 51% higher in tracts with a plasma center than in tracks without plasma centers.”

ImmunoTek Bio Center LLC placed its first Mississippi plasma donation facility in Horn Lake, Miss., with high rates of poverty. Map courtesy City of Horn Lake

Both Horn Lake in DeSoto County, where Immunotek Plasma located its first facility in Mississippi, and Jackson, Miss., have poverty levels that are well above the national average, at 16.3% and 24.5%, respectively. The national poverty level is 11.4%, while the average poverty rate in Mississippi is 18.7%.

The spokeswoman for ImmunoTek Bio Centers LLC told the Mississippi Free Press about the company’s decision-making process behind the siting of new facilities.

“[U]sually what they do is they look for locations that have available real estate,” she said. “So they look at a lot of different numbers; they look at demographics; they look at proximity to large cities, sometimes colleges because college students frequently donate plasma.”

The University of Michigan researchers’ 2021 report noted the lack of information in the academic literature on the short- and long-term implications of plasma donation.

“Pharmaceutical companies that manufacture and profit from the sale of plasma protein therapies have little incentive to investigate this line of inquiry further; their focus is on the patient, not the donor,” they wrote. “While there is an abundance of scholarship that examines the benefits of plasma-derived products for patients, deeper examination of how plasma donation affects purveyors of the raw material that patients and pharmaceutical companies depend on is equally important.”

Medical historian Harriet A. Washington said some people strongly react to sodium citrate in the plasma donation process. Author photo courtesy Penguin Random House

“However, the privatized nature of the pharmaceutical industry hinders access to donor data, hampering efforts for independent research in this area,” the researchers added. “Still, generating this kind of data is paramount to ensuring donors with low incomes are not inadvertently debilitating their bodies in an effort to combat their poverty.”

The FDA said plasma donors should not have less than 6 grams per 100 mL of serum protein in regular testing.

In the phone conversation with the Mississippi Free Press, the ImmunoTek Plasma Center spokeswoman explained that intending donors will go through a qualifying process. “When you come in to donate plasma, you go through a quick medical check to make sure that you are eligible to donate,” she said.

‘Everybody Lies’: Donors Use Tricks to Pass Tests

In his article published in The Atlantic, Darryl Lorenzo Wellington shared information he gleaned from people who regularly donate plasma. He referred to them as “plassers.” He described one as an alcoholic who was homeless and had been plassing for nearly 15 years, continually falling asleep on the couches and once collapsing in the standing line at CSL at Albuquerque, N.M.

He told Wellington that he was unhappy when he had been drinking too much to pass the protein level test, but the man claimed he later discovered how to game the test. “If I swallow ketchup before going in I can pass any test they throw at me,” the artist told Wellington. “Bubba was cognizant that donors who were homeless, alcoholic, or had suffered head injuries like his own were, in theory, barred,” the artist added.

“Everybody lies,” the plasser told Wellington. “Nobody is honest on all those questions.”

The Federal Drug Administration says people can donate plasma twice a week. Logo courtesy FDA

A woman told Wellington she puts on extra clothes to pass the weight limit of 110 pounds and knows regular plassers who use ankle weights to achieve the same end. Another told him he had had several blackouts, with one occurring while driving. “I had to pull over,” the respondent told Wellington. “I had to sit there several minutes in a daze. It really freaked me.”

Many of those he interviewed “lived in circumstances that made plassing a hardship, but said, ‘I can’t eat if I don’t plass,’” the artist added.

The nonprofit Immune Deficiency Foundation’s website,, said the body replenishes donated plasma protein quickly. “The body replenishes plasma proteins and fluid quickly after a donation within 24-48 hours, making it safe to donate more frequently than a whole blood donation,” the organization’s website added.

“Just as there is no substitute for blood, there is no substitute for the therapeutic proteins that come from plasma.”

‘No Evidence of Harm’

The 2018 Economist article opposes the notion that paying for blood plasma preys on the poor. “It is possible that those selling plasma need the money and therefore might give too often,” the magazine said. “In America plasma donors can give twice a week; those in Europe can give just once a week.”

“There is no evidence of harm to their health in either case, but more long-term study would be prudent,” the newspaper added.

The ImmunoTek Plasma Center in South Jackson now occupies the building that the Super D drug store vacated in 1998, citing a lack of business. Photo by Kayode Crown

In last month’s news release, ImmunoTek Chief Operating Officer McKinney explained the importance of compensating donors. “For donors, plasma donation is an easy way to help others and earn extra money,” she said. “For patients with life-altering medical conditions, receiving donated plasma can mean the difference between life and death.”

The Economist explained that limiting plasma donation to voluntary donors is not practical because the countries that don’t allow such all end up importing from those who allow the practice. “And the fact that America is by far the dominant supplier carries risks of its own,” the newspaper continued. “The dependence on a single source leaves the rest of the world vulnerable to an interruption of supply.”

“To protect their people, therefore, other governments need to diversify their supplies of plasma,” the newspaper added. “Paying for it would make a big difference.”

Immunotek Plasma spokeswoman told the Mississippi Free Press that the estimated $5 million per year of economic impact from the new center is a projection from similar facilities.

“As the center becomes established after the first year or so, the people become regular donors; it is very common for our centers to have regular donors who come in twice a week routinely and make their donations,” she said.

“So we are able to track that over the years of opening our centers; and that’s been about what the average is—for $5 million a year for different communities.”

Mississippi After Roe: Poorer Than Ever

Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

by Ann Marie Cunningham

July 1, 2022

Diane Derzis, the chief executive officer of Jackson Women’s Health Organization, looks up as she addresses the media during an emotional news conference Friday, June 24, 2022, held in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. The ruling means the last abortion clinic in Mississippi will close. Neirin Gray Desai/MCIR

Mississippi is already the poorest state in the nation, with many women living in rural health care deserts, as well as the highest rates of teenage pregnancy and infant and maternal mortality of any state. Despite efforts to forestall the effects of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 24 ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, abortion in all probability will no longer be available here in the next several days, and for many women in Mississippi the situation is expected to become dire.

Most Mississippi women who need abortions are already mothers – single mothers in low-wage jobs with employers like Walmart or fast-food shops. Most are underinsured or uninsured. Of any state, Mississippi has the highest percentage of single mothers who are heads of households. Most of them are poor Black, Latina, or Choctaw Indian women.

According to Rebecca Tong, co-executive director of Trust Women Foundation, a nonprofit that has operated abortion clinics in Oklahoma and Kansas, “Most women tell us they need abortions because they want to be good parents” – able to give their children the financial and emotional support they need. They cannot afford another child.

An indication of what lies ahead in the Magnolia State can be found in a recent report in The New Yorker about a Houston, Texas, family who had to drive to New Mexico for an abortion for their 14-year old daughter. According to Planned Parenthood, she was among about 1,700 patients who have traveled to New Mexico since September 2021, when Texas restricted abortion. The medical and travel costs exhausted the Houston family’s savings, meaning they could not improve their economic situation for another decade or longer.

They also could face legal consequences. Under a Texas abortion law passed before last week’s abortion ruling, someone who “aids or abets” an abortion after cardiac activity can be detected — typically around six weeks — can be fined at least $10,000. And anyone can bring that civil action.

When the late Texas lawyer Sarah Weddington argued Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court in 1973, she talked about how disruptive an unwanted pregnancy can be – to a woman’s body, her education, her family, her economic circumstances. Norma McCorvey, who was Jane Roe, came from three generations of women in Texas who were unable to obtain abortions. As single mothers, they remained poor. If a young woman in Mississippi is forced to interrupt her education to raise a child, pro-choice advocates say she may not be able to better herself. The consequences could be catastrophic economically for her and for her home state.

On June 24, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and upheld Mississippi’s law banning abortion after 16 weeks, Mississippi’s trigger law went into effect, making abortion illegal 10 days after state Attorney General Lynn Fitch certified it. “I bet you money that [the trigger law] was waiting for her on her desk this morning,” said Diane Derzis, chief executive officer of Jackson Women’s Health Organization, at a news conference that day.

At present, JWHO’s The Pink House, the last abortion clinic in Mississippi, is open for business, performing abortions up to 15 weeks. It is expected to close July 7, pending the outcome of a state constitutional challenge.

Pro-choice and anti-abortion factions display their positions Friday, June 24, 2022, on signs outside the Pink House where the Jackson Women’s Health Organization operates the last abortion clinic in Mississippi. It will close soon following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 6-3 ruling overturning Roe v. Wade. Neirin Gray Desai/MCIR

However, JWHO is suing to remain open. Three groups – the Mississippi Center for Justice, the Center for Reproductive Rights, whose lawyers represented JWHO before the Supreme Court in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, and the prestigious New York law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison – have filed for a restraining order on the basis of a 1998 decision by the Mississippi Supreme Court. In this particular case, the court found that abortion was legal according to the Mississippi state constitution. All three chancery judges in Hinds County, where Jackson is located, have recused themselves from hearing the case and requested the state Supreme Court appoint a special judge. On Thursday, the court appointed 4th District Chancery Judge Debbra K. Halford of Meadville to hear the case. She denied the request for a temporary restraining order.

Planned Parenthood in Florida is pursuing a similar tactic. Judge John C. Cooper of the Second Judicial Circuit Court in Tallahassee ruled from the bench Thursday that the 15-week abortion ban law, signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in April, will not be enforced because it violates privacy protections in that state’s constitution. Voters wrote the amendment into the constitution in 1980 to block other abortion restrictions. Judges in Louisiana, Utah, Texas, and Kentucky have made similar rulings.

If the new case succeeds in Mississippi, JWHO could remain open, possibly making Mississippi an abortion sanctuary state in the Deep South. If it fails, Mississippi women who need abortions will have to come up with money to travel to at least New Mexico, Colorado or Illinois – the closest states where abortion remains legal. These women will have to take time off work and will need funds to cover travel costs and probably babysitting as well.

A sign displayed behind the Jackson Women’s Health Organization news conference Friday, June 24, 2022, assures women seeking abortions that the procedure will be available at The Pink House West in New Mexico when the Mississippi clinic closes as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Ann Marie Cunningham/MCIR

Derzis said on June 24 that donations were pouring into independent funds that cover these costs, including The Pink House Fund, Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund and Alabama’s Yellowhammer Fund. In New Mexico, a woman said that her daughter, who lives in Spain, was one such donor. However, like other local funds in states where abortion’s legal future is uncertain, Yellowhammer has suspended some services. Abortion advocates encourage donors to give to the nonprofit National Network of Abortion Funds, which consists of 80 grassroots organizations in 38 states and four countries and distributes donations to states.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, 63 percent of Americans support Roe v. Wade. Is that true for Mississippians? Derzis said she thought so, given the amount of local support she said the Pink House has received, on many levels – “we create a great deal of traffic and trash for local businesses.”

Are pro-life Mississippians among those whom a recent Gallup poll said would help a friend or relative who needed an abortion? Derzis said she believed they are: “It’s different when it’s someone you love.”

Several studies, including a well-known 2020 national study by the University of California-San Francisco, known as the Turnaway Study, have linked access to abortion to a woman’s ability to thrive economically, along with their children. They are able to finish their education and take higher-paying jobs. According to Kate Bahn, chief economist and director of labor market policy at the nonprofit Washington Center for Equitable Growth, 154 economists signed an amicus curiae brief for Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization before the Supreme Court, stating that access to abortion enhanced women’s ability to contribute to the economy.

Without Roe v. Wade, cases of forced motherhood in Mississippi are expected to be on the horizon. Pregnancy can be very dangerous, and limited abortion access can make it worse. Black women now die of pregnancy-related causes nearly three times more frequently than White women. A 2021 study at the University of Colorado found an abortion ban could increase pregnancy-related deaths for Black women by as much as 33 percent.

Two projects are trying to help women living in health care deserts in rural areas. Nonprofit Plan A Health sends a mobile clinic in a colorful van to small towns in cotton and soybean fields like Metcalfe, outside Greenville in Washington County, the largest in the Delta. Inside the surprisingly spacious van, two community health workers and a nurse practitioner offer free prenatal and gynecological care, as well as free birth control. If a patient wants an abortion, Plan A refers her to a doctor.

Plan A Health wants to send its van to every town in the Delta, as well as the home of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. Because of rural isolation and lack of education, Indians are more likely to need abortions than any other ethnic group. The nonprofit also operates a brick-and-mortar clinic in Louise that is open twice a month. The greatest obstacle to better maternal and infant health, Plan A workers say, is education.

Plan A Health’s free mobile clinic for women on the main street in Metcalfe, Miss. Ann Marie Cunningham/MCIR

According to Lisa Haynie, professor of nursing at the University of Mississippi School of Nursing and director of the Mercy Delta Express Project, the school has raised funds to begin sending a van with a mobile clinic to the Delta. The school already operates a high school health clinic in the Delta’s Sharkey County. This clinic is run by first- and third-year residents from the University of Mississippi Medical Center. It dispenses free birth control and refers patients who want abortions to JWHC or to a social worker. Haynie said the school hopes for funding to run a clinic at Lanier High School in Jackson.

Another Jackson nonprofit wants to combat an additional dismal fact about maternity in Mississippi: The state leads in the number of Black women undergoing Cesareans. In a documentary, Ebony Lumumba, wife of Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, said even she was pressured to have a Cesarean. The operation is much more convenient for doctors; unlike birth after labor, it can be scheduled.

Getty Israel is founder and executive director of Sisters in Birth Inc., a Jackson nonprofit that already offers prenatal counseling and other services to pregnant women. Getty wants Black women to look back to the model of the granny midwife, who delivered most Black children during the Jim Crow era. Israel is raising $5 million to build a birthing center just outside Jackson,where pregnant women close to labor can stay and give birth with help from midwives and doulas.

In principle, Native American tribes, as sovereign nations, could offer abortions on their lands. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians declined to comment. In New Mexico, home to a large Native American population, an abortion advocate stated that most Indian nations do not want to be associated with abortion clinics.

At the state level, the legal landscape is likely to remain messy and confused for years. For example, the governor of Delaware signed a bill allowing physicians’ assistants and advanced-practice nurses to prescribe abortifacients – any drug or chemical preparation that induces abortion – joining 18 other states. The same day, CVS and Rite-Aid announced they are limiting access to abortion medications.

Some liberal prosecutors, mayors, and city council members in at least seven conservative states have pledged not to enforce strict abortion bans. But Rebecca Tong maintained, “No doctor will be willing [to offer abortions] under a promise from a prosecutor. We fly in all our doctors because of threats of violence. If [anti-abortionists] want to shoot you, they can. Dr. [George] Tiller was shot in his church.”

With the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Brenda Feigen co-directed the Women’s Rights Project, formed in 1972 at the American Civil Liberties Union. “SCOTUS’s decision did not mention women,” Feigen pointed out. “It was all about tiny little fingers and toes.

 “I know Ruth must be spinning in her grave,” Feigen lamented.

Floods inundating Appalachian communities are ‘public health nightmares’


by Austyn Gaffney

February 17, 2020

Drone footage of flooding in Eastern Kentucky in February. Screenshot courtesy Ben Childers Photography.

Carolyn Lawson was trapped in her home for two days after 6.9 inches of rainfall flooded Pineville, Kentucky in early February. Water from the mountain behind her house rushed beneath her foundation, turning a feeder creek for the Cumberland River, neighboring fields, and Highway 221 into a lake 150 feet across and dozens of feet deep. Lawson, 50, has lived in the area her whole life, and although she’s used to floods, this time was different. “I’d never seen the water that high out there,” Lawson said over the phone. “I was really scared.” 

Though her yard is a mess, Lawson, operations director for a shelter called LightHouse Ministries, said she couldn’t complain because she’s “seeing people who’ve lost everything.” The shelter housed about 25 people, mostly families, during the floods. 

Much of central Appalachia was underwater for well over a week due to flooding from heavy downpours. Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia declared states of emergencies. Tennessee’s governor has not, but the eastern part of the state saw damage from flooding. 

Kentucky officials are calling it a “one in 100 year event,” but these types of floods are more frequent, exacerbating problems in a region already facing crises like contaminated drinking water and widespread pollution from coal mining. Harlan County Judge Executive Dan Mosley said flooding has increased in the winter months since he took office six years ago, with February floods occurring five out of the last six years. Some low-lying homes — those in a holler or along creeks and riverbeds — flood every year. “It’s not safe for a place to flood every year for five years,” said Mosley. “You think of public health nightmares from people living in a home that continues to flood.” 

Emergency officials rescued over 100 people across the region — some residents reported being trapped in their homes for five days — and multiple schools and businesses closed due to high water. In Kentucky, over 217 homes were impacted, which state officials called “well above the norm” for flooding events. 

BarbiAnn Maynard lives in Kentucky but fills her water in West Virginia because of water contamination issues in Martin County. Photo courtesy BarbiAnn Maynard.

An associated rockslide in Kentucky pushed train cars carrying ethanol into the Big Sandy River, catching fire and spilling oil into the waterway. One death has been reported: Ronnie Bryant, a 74-year-old Kentucky grandfather who drowned on his way to work when water submerged his vehicle. Some Kentucky county officials estimate damage in the hundreds of thousands of dollars; two counties in Virginia say they’re facing well over $2 million.

The floods have further destabilized communities in a region that has long been struggling because of a lack of investment in basic infrastructure, including crumbling drinking water systems and dams in poor condition. And rain events like this are becoming more frequent and intense. Ohio Valley ReSource reports that rainstorms in Kentucky posing a flood risk — at least two inches in 24 hours — have increased 20 percent since the early 20th century. Perry County Judge Executive Scott Alexander said climate change does come up in discussions of emergency management, and his community can “adjust as we need to,” should major flooding events continue. 

Kentucky residents and officials praised the emergency response. Mandi Sheffel, 38, opened the doors to her new bookstore, Read Spotted Newt, one week before flooding hit her community of Hazard. She nervously watched the north fork of the Kentucky River rise before moving everything in her store three feet off the ground. The river crested at 26.2-feet, crossing Main Street and pushing two feet into low-lying businesses, including her own. Sheffel called the local emergency response “fabulous,” and said mud slurry covering the parking lot and road was cleared the following day.

BarbiAnn Maynard, a Martin County resident, said her home along the Tug River was 12 feet from the flood zone in early February, but she’s experienced flooding every year since 2012. Her family’s home has been rebuilt three times and it now sits 15 cinder blocks high with flood gates at either end of the foundation. 

Some residents, including Maynard, expressed frustration with the fact that the flooding makes health and infrastructure challenges harder for communities to handle. A water crisis has prevented many people in Martin County from using tap water for two decades: In 2000, over 300 million gallons of coal slurry washed down the Tug River, contaminating the community’s drinking water source. Aging infrastructure and an overextended water treatment plant have further degraded water quality. Multiple counties in Kentucky, West Virginia, and southwest Virginia also face frequent water line breaks, boil advisories, and concerns about contamination from industry. 

According to Maynard, a request to declare a state of emergency for Martin County’s drinking water crisis sat on former Gov. Matt Bevin’s desk most of 2019. Gov. Andy Beshear has promised to address drinking water issues, but he hasn’t declared a state of emergency yet. 

Flooding in Martin County, Kentucky in February. Photo courtesy BarbiAnn Maynard

Some county officials are taking on the responsibility of addressing these problems. In response to more frequent flooding over the last six years, Harlan County has adjusted how and when they test the flood control system installed by the Army Corps of Engineers after a catastrophic flood in 1977. Mosley said he has requested more equipment and personnel from the state to help clear out ditches and tiles so water can flow more easily around roadways during times of flood, and he said the area needs renewed federal investment to buy out homes. 

At least a dozen counties that declared emergencies are hoping to receive FEMA assistance. In the meantime, Mosley said the county is making sure roads are safe and coordinating with local churches, ministries, and nonprofits to find local solutions like food and clothing vouchers. 

But he isn’t optimistic that, if approved, they’ll see federal assistance anytime soon. “We’ve not had an individual assistance declaration since I’ve been here, so all I can base it on is what I’ve heard from other places,” said Mosley, referring to county officials from other Southern states hit by hurricanes and tornadoes. “What I’ve heard is it’s very slow and the process is very long.” 

Austyn Gaffney is a freelance reporter in Kentucky covering agriculture, energy, and climate change. Her work has been featured in HuffPost, In These Times, onEarth, Sierra, Vice, and more.

This story was supported by the Even T. Collinsworth Jr. Memorial Fund.

Top photo: Drone footage by Ben Childers Photography.

Former welfare agency head, others arrested for embezzling millions intended for poor Mississippians

Mississippi Today

by Anna Wolfe

February 5, 2020

John Davis, former director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services

The former Mississippi Director of Human Services and nonprofit officials conspired to embezzle millions of dollars meant for services to poor Mississippians, according to a Wednesday release from the office of the state auditor.

Special agents arrested John Davis, the former Human Services director, along with his employee, Latimer Smith.

Nancy New, Zach New, Anne McGrew — all officials from the nonprofit Mississippi Community Education Center — as well as retired professional wrestler Brett DiBiase were also arrested in connection with the scheme uncovered during an eight-month investigation. Indictments include charges of fraud and embezzlement.

“The funds that were illegally obtained in this case were intended to help the poorest among us. The funds were instead taken by a group of influential people for their own benefit, and the scheme is massive. It ends today,” said State Auditor Shad White.

A human services department media release Wednesday evening stated that the agency self-reported the information that prompted the investigation to Gov. Phil Bryant in June 2019. The department of human services announced Davis’ retirement in early July of that year.

“We look forward to this moving through the justice system to a final disposition,” the agency’s release stated.

According to the auditor’s release, Davis and Smith allegedly manufactured documents to enrich Brett DiBiase with money from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which provides basic assistance to the nation’s poorest residents.

“Davis and Smith created invoices to pay DiBiase TANF funds for teaching classes about drug abuse, but DiBiase was in a luxury rehabilitation facility for his own drug use in California at the time and did not perform the services,” the release said. “Davis and Smith created documents and arranged payment knowing DiBiase was not performing the work he was hired to perform.”

Nancy New and her son, Zach, allegedly used the funds the human services department granted their nonprofit to pay for DiBiase’s drug treatment at a Malibu treatment facility, as well as funneled money for their personal use through “deceptive accounting measures,” the auditor’s office said.

“The documentation submitted by the News claimed this was to pay DiBiase for conducting training classes that never, in fact, took place,” the release said.

The release also alleges Davis and the News used welfare dollars to pay for personal investments in medical device companies in Florida.

“I don’t care how politically connected a person may be. You do not have the right to treat taxpayer money as your own or to lie to the taxpayers about what you’re doing with that money. Others doing this kind of thing are on notice: this will not be tolerated now,” said White.

Most money spent in the child welfare system comes after kids are in foster care. What if that’s backwards?

A multi-county, privately funded project aims to flip the system to prevent kids from needing services in the first place.

The Colorado Sun

by Jennifer Brown

January 20, 2020

In the Douglas County suburbs, one type of call to the child abuse hotline is more likely to end up with a kid in foster care than any other: “Beyond Control of Parents.” 

The term means a child or teenager is having such severe mental health and behavioral issues that they’ve become a problem at school and at home. Teachers have kicked them out of class. Parents have exhausted all their options. 

And when county child welfare officials reviewed their data, they realized that nearly half of “Beyond Control of Parents” calls resulted in investigations. One-third of youth ended up in foster homes, group homes or residential treatment centers. That’s much more often than in cases where parents are accused of abuse or neglect.

This led Douglas County to ask the question now intriguing the child protection community in Colorado: What if the system could help those kids sooner, before they were in crisis? And if the government put more money on the front end, instead of having it kick in when children get involved with child protection, could it spare kids from having caseworkers show up at their door to remove them from their homes?

Jessica, a young mother who fled a violent marriage with her son, receives parenting skills sessions through the Tennyson Center for Children that she says have transformed her relationship with her son. Michael, 3, loves playing a piano and “acting like a DJ” in their apartment. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

The county human services department, along with several others in urban and rural Colorado, is part of a massive, multimillion-dollar experiment that could overhaul the child welfare system. This is not a tweak in policy or the addition of a new program — it’s an attempt to rewrite how child welfare works. 

And although it has the support of the state child welfare division, that’s not where the idea originated. A group of nonprofits and private-sector organizations that provide services for foster kids, led by the Tennyson Center for Children in Denver, has raised millions of dollars to help children before a caseworker comes to their house or anyone calls the child abuse and neglect hotline about them. 

Those involved in the effort hope to capture enough data to convince the policymakers who write the state budget and dole out Medicaid money that public dollars would have a bigger impact if they were spent on prevention. 

The leader of the project is Tennyson Center CEO Ned Breslin, a survivor of child abuse, the former CEO of the global nonprofit Water for People, a TED talker and a relentless, big-idea guy. 

“We think we will show it’s cheaper to intervene earlier, that it’s less traumatic, that a family does not have to continue to get worse before they get help,” he said. “We believe it will be so powerful that philanthropic dollars eventually will not be needed for this.”

Here is how the project — called “Rewiring” — will work: 

The ZOMA Foundation, the Piton Foundation and the RJ Clark Foundation are the main donors (they are not ready to reveal how much they’ve donated, but it’s several million dollars). Organizations including Tennyson, the Savio House, Lutheran Family Services and others are providing the therapists, parenting coaches and mental health staff to help children and parents before they are involved with the child welfare system.

How do they find the families that need help? This part is tricky, and varies by county, but local child welfare departments that have signed on to the project will work with schools, hospitals, nonprofits and others to sign people up for services.

The goal is to find the families who are a bit “wobbly,” Breslin said. 

These are the babies born in the hospital who are not addicted to drugs — which would mean child welfare officials would intervene — but those born to families without secure food and housing, or with a lack of attachment or parenting skills. They are teenagers with mental health issues not yet severe enough that they’re out of a parent’s control or in need of a mental health hold.

They are kids whose school counselors have reported to the child abuse and neglect hotline in the hopes of getting them services, but their cases are screened out because they don’t qualify.

“Give us those families, the ones that you are heartbroken you are turning away,” Breslin said. “Our hope is you never see them again. Child welfare is always going to be needed, but it shouldn’t be at this level.”

Huge budget, poor outcomes

The child welfare system has a $558 million budget in Colorado, with about 8,820 out-of-home foster placements last year. 

The system’s outcomes, nationally and here, are abysmal — children who spend time in foster care are less likely to graduate from high school than kids who are homeless. They’re more likely to become homeless as adults, go to prison, become addicted to drugs and have their own kids who end up in foster care.

Most of the funding — a mixture of mostly state money, but also federal and county dollars —  goes to kids in foster homes and residential treatment centers, and to investigate cases of abuse and neglect to determine whether to remove kids from their parents. Wards of the state are covered by Medicaid, the government insurance program for low-income residents that pays for medical and mental health treatment. 

Douglas County is focusing its efforts on mental health because that’s where local leaders believe they can make the biggest impact. 

“Should you have to be in the child welfare system in order to receive timely and adequate mental health services?” asked Daniel Mekelky, director of human services for Douglas County. “That is the crux of this.”

As mental health issues among the county’s youth have soared, the department hears regularly from parents who struggle to get private insurance companies and Medicaid to cover treatment. Parents call the abuse hotline, but the calls are not assigned a caseworker because there is no alleged abuse or neglect — they simply need services. 

Without help, the family dynamic worsens, problems escalate, and the youth becomes so out of control they become a ward of the state and go live either in a residential treatment center or a juvenile detention center. 

With funding from the Rewiring project, the county is directing families to community nonprofits that will provide services — an “alternate response” to the child welfare system. The human services department also has partnered with nine Douglas County schools, where counselors will connect students with the nonprofits, including the Juvenile Assessment Center and Manna Connect. 

They want to keep kids who aren’t experiencing abuse or neglect out of the child welfare system. 

As the system works now, “they do in fact have to get worse before they can come to the attention of our department,” said Ruby Richards, Douglas County human services deputy director.

Other counties involved in the first wave of the project — Boulder, Denver, Larimer and Eagle — are currently writing plans to show which types of families they plan to target and which local agencies can help. Boulder County, for example, is considering a focus on the abuse of kids from birth to age 3. 

In Eagle County, which typically has about 10 children in foster care and 35 open child welfare cases, officials are trying to figure out how to find families before they hear about them. Options up for discussion include offering services to families in poverty or to those with past criminal involvement, both factors that contribute to child neglect. The county also might look into truancy programs, providing services to youth who are regularly missing school. 

“How do you find the families that will eventually become child welfare-involved? That is the question,” said Kendra Kleinschmidt, deputy director of Eagle County human services. “I think some families have certain risk factors that we might be able to target.”

The project is already starting to take shape in the Denver metro area.

Keeping families out of the child welfare system

In a small, two-bedroom apartment, Erica Sullivan dumps out a box of colorful blocks on the living room floor. 

Sullivan, a licensed social worker with the Tennyson Center, is here to teach a single mom how to play with her 3-year-old son. Bigger-picture than that, she’s here to keep Jessica, whose last name is not used in this story because she recently escaped a violent marriage, and her son, Michael, out of the child welfare system.

Jessica sits across from Sullivan on the rug and picks up a plastic dinosaur, making it climb the mountain of blocks. 

For months, Sullivan has been helping Jessica and Michael to rebuild trust as they recover from the trauma of domestic violence. They talk about how Michael is so attached to his mom that it’s hard for Jessica to leave him at daycare, how the little boy gets too wound up and aggressive when they play, and how Jessica can give him undivided attention in five-minute bursts. Michael’s morning routine is posted on the living room wall — breakfast, brush teeth, favorite TV show, get dressed. 

Erica Sullivan, an early childhood clinician with the Tennyson Center for Children, listens to Jessica describe recent interactions with her 3-year-old son, Michael. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Sullivan suggested a few weeks back that Michael get a baby doll. “That doll has been a miracle,” Jessica tells her. “It helps with the gentleness.” 

Jessica left her ex-husband in 2018, the same day he punched her in the ear and fractured her jaw. Police called Arapahoe County child protective services, and a caseworker told Jessica she had two choices — she could leave her husband and take her son with her, or the boy could go to foster care.

She moved in with her mother until she could find her own apartment. 

More than a year later, Jessica was holding her toddler in a living room chair during a session with Sullivan when she burst into tears. Looking back, she says it was the moment she started to let go of the guilt she felt for not protecting her son. 

“My emotions shifted,” she said. “Michael’s emotions shifted.”

State budget writers have their eyes on child welfare

A 2018 federal law is forcing states to keep more kids out of group homes and institutions or forfeit federal funding. 

It’s called the Family First Prevention Services Act and will cost Colorado $11.5 million in its first year for new employees and data system upgrades. The premise is simple: It’s better for children to live with their own parents or relatives, or at least in foster families, than it is to live in group homes and residential treatment centers.

That’s a big shift, but it’s not nearly as big as what the “Rewiring” project is attempting to accomplish in Colorado. 

Family First is about preventing kids who are known to child protective services from having to leave their homes by offering their families counseling, parenting skills and other services. The Colorado plan is about preventing kids from ever entering the system in the first place.

The topic is one of frequent frustration at the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, which authored a bill in 2018 that ordered the state human services department to launch a multi-year system-change initiative.

The budget committee asked the department to produce a timeline for a new model and to “explain why it has failed to implement the model in time for it to inform the General Assembly” prior to budgeting. 

Lawmakers and committee staff are hungry for change, and bigger change than is required by federal law. Several of them have met with Breslin about the “Rewiring” project in recent months.

Above the piano that 3-year-old Michael plays, a whiteboard with his sleep schedule reminds his mother of tips she’s learned from her sessions with Erica Sullivan from The Tennyson Center for Children. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Michelle Barnes, who was appointed as executive director of human services by Gov. Jared Polis last year, visited Tennyson Center a few months ago and talked to Breslin about his project. The two are outsiders in the child welfare system — Barnes was a serial interim CEO to several companies and Breslin spent most of his career at Water for People. 

“Instead of waiting for the state to do everything in terms of this culture shift in child welfare, he is just grabbing the bull by the horns, with a lot of friends,” Barnes said. “I thought it was just brilliant.”

The culture shift will have a long lead, Barnes said, noting that the government can’t abandon efforts to help those already in foster care or under investigation for abuse and neglect. “Short term, we can’t walk away from people in crisis,” she said. “The hope is that we will get fewer people in crisis, but that’s not going to happen overnight.”

Today’s college students are ‘hardly carefree kids’


by Nation Hahn

December 4, 2019

American mass media have long portrayed a particular ideal of students entering college. They’re fresh-faced teens, just moving out of their parents’ home, and eager for the world to open up on a scenic campus where they will meet new friends, attend sporting events, go to poetry readings, and perhaps even protest.

The ideal is reflected everywhere — in philanthropic resources that invest heavily in four-year institutions, in our financial aid infrastructure, even in residency determination systems that often presume that students are coming from a parental home.

And the ideal is a full-time student, with minimal responsibilities aside from working a minimum-wage job for beer money.

But that’s not reality.

Nationally, more than 7.8 million students in the fall of 2019 are attending part time. More than 6 million students are attending two-year institutions.

Hundreds of thousands of students are attending two-year institutions for customized training, workforce credentials, or other purposes related directly to employment. In 2015 alone, 894,763 students were awarded occupational education credentials.

These students skew older and often have families and the responsibilities children bring. Many face daunting challenges, such as food, housing, and financial insecurity, that create a very different educational experience than the idealized image of tossing a Frisbee on a sun-drenched college green.

“Students entering our community colleges differ greatly. … They are first-generation students, mature students returning to college, or entering college for the first time, single parents, working full time in addition to attending college, and often question whether they are ‘college material,’” Susan Barbitta, executive director of student success for the North Carolina Community College system, said in an email interview.

Nearly 70% of community college students in 2016 were working while enrolled as students, with 60% of those students working more than 16 hours per week. The same study showed that the majority of those working students were working to meet a financial need. Or, to put it plainly, they are working because they have to, not because they need some spending money on the weekends.

That creates another hurdle.

“Working too many hours — above the 15-hour threshold per week — can also lead to a higher probability of non-completion and dropping out for low-income students,” said a 2018 report from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. “If we add that to student loan debt incurred from trying and failing to complete a credential, some of these students were possibly worse off for having tried. The net result is that students who most need the income and high quality work experiences often wind up with the least access to both.” 

In short, many community college students have an extra hill to climb on the path to attainment. Over the past 18 months of traveling to community college campuses, I’ve met many students who are living this reality, and not an awful lot who are living the idealized version of college life.

Meet Amanda Vick

When you drive down Kehukee Park Road in Williamston, your first sight of Martin Community College might be a cluster of horses grazing next to a newly painted fence. If you don’t know that Martin is known for its equine program, you might believe you are passing a farm before you see the digital sign announcing your arrival on the campus while promising to its community that it is “Building Better Futures.”

Martin Community College takes its name from the county it serves. One of the 58 two-year institutions that make up the North Carolina Community College system, the college was granted community college status by the General Assembly in 1976.

On my first visit to Martin, the equine program promised to be a key part of the story. After all, how many two-year institutions have colts, mares, and steeds running around?

The interim president of the college, however, wanted to make sure we had time to meet their then-student body president, Amanda Vick. Vick had taken two decades off from her education after dropping out in her teens.

Vick admitted that she had struggled in the intervening decades, but she had been fortunate to have three children she was raising on the outskirts of Williamston. Those daughters became her inspiration to go back to school, and it was Martin that served as her pathway to an education.

Vick was fortunate to have her mother and oldest child step up to take care of the family. Other students are not so lucky. In North Carolina, the Belk Center notes, many community colleges that had child care centers are closing them for varied reasons, including cost and liability.

The most effective step many colleges are taking in lieu of child care centers is scheduling classes at times that are better for working parents.

Hunger and housing challenges

In a 2018 #RealCollege survey by Hope4College, which included 86,000 participants across 123 two- and four-year colleges, 47% of the students from two-year institutions reported “very low” or “low” food security.

In the same survey, 60% of respondents at two-year institutions said they experienced housing insecurity.

This is the reality for far more college students, whether they are attending a two-year institution or a four-year college, than popular culture suggests. Researcher and author Sara Goldrick-Rab of Temple University’s Hope Center told us in an email interview: “The reality is that today’s students, even the youngest among them, are hardly carefree kids. They are the austerity generation of college students, attending college with far less support (from family, from financial aid, from states, etc.) than in the past. The new economics of college are responsible for this.”

The cost of college isn’t just due to rising tuition, but also other soaring expenses, including rent, Goldrick-Rab noted. She also pointed to income instability among student families, flat wage growth, and state budget cuts beginning during the Great Recession in 2008-2009 as factors. She said the challenges are compounded because “the safety net is shredded, so programs like TANF and SNAP aren’t good backups when financial aid falls short. And public colleges and universities are deeply underfunded on a per-student basis thanks to state budget cuts.”

Asked whether the numbers around housing and food insecurity from her survey surprised her, Goldrick-Rab replied, “When I first saw them in 2015, yes. In 2019 after years and years of this, no. Now that I’ve seen the new economics of college play out on the ground on colleges all over the country, I believe we get exactly what we pay for.”

These challenges exist against a backdrop of less philanthropic investment in two-year institutions compared with four-year colleges.

Harvard University’s endowment alone is north of $40 billion. The largest community college endowment falls around $500 million and belongs to Miami Dade College — a total that makes their endowment the 196th largest in the country, according to the Chronicle for Higher Education. 

According to a piece from Hechinger Report, as of 2013, “investments from community colleges’ endowments, combined, earn $27.6 million a year. … That’s how much Harvard alone makes from its $32.7 billion endowment about every two and a half days.” 

Goldrick-Rab minced no words when asked about the philanthropic disparity.

“Donors who give them money are contributing to hoarding,” she said, “and while they might fantasize that they are changing the lives of a few low-income students, they are missing out on the chance to affect thousands at a time — by investing in the institutions that are open and provide broad access, and where resources are thin – philanthropy can make a massive difference.”

In other words, these institutions are missing the opportunity to help more students like Amanda Vick.

Today, Amanda is working at the Humane Society of Greenville, homeschooling her children, and plotting her next educational opportunity. She intends to enroll at East Carolina University in hopes of becoming a federal auditor. Her oldest daughter is now attending Martin Community College and aspires to launch her own business.

This is the fourth piece in a series on challenges facing community college students titled: An Extra Hill to Climb. The series is a partnership between and Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity. and Spotlight partnered to illustrate the challenges facing many community college students through stories from North Carolina and data illustrating the broader challenges in the United States.

College students of North Carolina battle the storms of poverty


by Rupen R. Fofaria

December 3, 2019

Kenneth Outlaw stands in his now-abandoned home, gutted down to its framing with some insulation hanging from where ceiling once hung. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC.

Ken Outlaw’s goal was to graduate community college with a 4.0 grade point average. He wanted to make up for one of the biggest mistakes of his life — dropping out of high school. He wanted to show his family, and especially his special needs stepdaughter, that it was possible. He wanted to show future employers his potential.

Working the night shift, and accommodating extra hours requests from his employer, the task was never an easy one.

He got home at 2 a.m. and went to bed. With his 4.0 goal firmly in mind, he set an alarm for 6 a.m. to prepare for school. At 7 a.m., he headed to classes at James Sprunt Community College in Kenansville, N.C. and, after the school day, went back to work before arriving home again. Exhausted. Weary. At two hours past midnight.

“It was a lot, but I’m not afraid of working hard,” Outlaw said. “At the time, I was thinking it would all be worth it to create a better life for my family.”

There were times he was sure he would break. His resolve was strong, but on four hours’ sleep he was holding on by a thread to dreams of graduating with that perfect GPA, getting his welding degree and improving his family’s situation.

Then Hurricane Florence hit. And that thread was ready to snap.

He saw water rise like an ocean around his home, swallowing up his front porch and flowing inside more than four feet high in the bedroom. His house stood, inaccessible, like an island in the middle of North Carolina farmland.

A Facebook post from the local fire department is how Kenneth Outlaw discovered the flooding at his home. Courtesy Kenneth Outlaw.

A community college degree can mean up to 55% higher earning potential for certain graduates, according to North Carolina’s Department of Commerce. For Eastern North Carolina residents, living in mostly rural towns with declining industry and opportunity, community colleges offer hope for earners struggling to make ends meet. For the communities, the colleges and its students help attract new businesses and represent hope for rebuilding local economies.

But with increasingly frequent climate disasters – like three, 500-year floods visiting in just three years — the already fragile hopes of Eastern North Carolina community college students are strained further, forcing students to balance dreams of college diplomas with meeting basic security needs, such as housing and food.  

For Outlaw, the flood left him desperately scrambling for time and money to save his home. He looked into the eyes of his family and outwardly wondered if he had the capacity to shelter them and keep food on the table while completing his degree.

He wasn’t the only one.

Community colleges offer ladders of opportunity

Ginger Jenkins didn’t expect to attend community college. She had a fine career in accounting, learning on the job for about 20 years. But her pay was maxed out and one day she was told she was no longer needed. The company laid Jenkins off. That’s when she realized her experience met the requirements on many job postings, but her education did not.

“That was a wakeup call,” she said.

Most times, living in North Carolina can provide an easy fix for that.

North Carolina’s community college system is the third largest in the nation, with more than 700,000 students enrolled in 58 colleges this year. Its infrastructure is so vast it boasts that no resident can drive 30 miles without passing one of its institutions. And it’s among the nation’s most affordable, running less than $2,000 a year for full-time, in-state tuition.

The state’s governor, Roy Cooper, often links the health of North Carolina’s economy to its community colleges – and it’s a natural link, considering that 40 percent of North Carolina wage earners attended some community college within the past 10 years.

Those students often have had to surmount significant obstacles, even before the recent influx of extreme weather. Over half of all undergraduates live at home to make their degrees more affordable, and 40 percent of students work at least 30 hours a week. About 25 percent work full-time and go to school full-time.

The typical college student is not fresh out of high school. A quarter of community college students are older than 25, and about the same number are single parents. A recent report found just having basic sustenance was a challenge for many community college students, with nearly half of respondents reporting some level of food insecurity.

Jenkins fit the single parent data point. She’s also older than 25 and works full-time. After she was laid off, though, she became determined not to fall in the food insecure category – but she had four mouths to feed and was caring for an aging father.

Ginger Jenkins stands in what once was her front lawn, the home she lived in with her four kids now just a memory. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC.

The first priority was finding shelter

Like Outlaw, Jenkins enrolled at Sprunt hoping to make life just a little bit easier for her family.

She lived with her four kids one town over from Outlaw, in a cozy home in Wallace about a mile northeast of the Cape Fear River. Her father lived next door.

She balanced her community college workload with caring for her children, all in middle or high school. Late nights and early mornings were the norm before Florence’s arrival. She had grown accustomed to the daily urgencies, always thinking about the next item on her to-do list.

Drop the kids off at school. Check.

Head to Sprunt and put in some hours in their tax office. Check.

Classes. Study. Check.

Part-time substitute teaching for extra money. Check.

Pick up the kids and help with homework. Check.

Settle in for a long night of studying for her own classes. Check.

Then, last September, Jenkins and her family lost just about everything they owned when Hurricane Florence hit. They took two weeks’ worth of clothes with them, at the most, when they evacuated. When they came back, there was nothing else left.

The river waters came up so high that, when they started gutting the house, they removed entire sections of walls and floors without finding salvageable wood or dry wall.

After trying to gut her home and remove mold revealed pervasive damage, she had no choice but to demolish the entire structure. Courtesy Ginger Jenkins.

The home was a complete loss. With the help of family and friends, they demolished it. Now, all that remains is a faint outline of where it once stood, filled in with overgrown grass and weeds.

“My kids didn’t understand what had really happened with the storm until they saw the house being torn down,” she said. “It was like they realized, they used to have this or that, and now they don’t have those things.”

Homeless, her first priority was finding shelter. They found a rental, smaller than their house but big enough for the family to fit. But it would be more than a month before Duplin County Schools re-opened, so her next challenge was figuring out how to balance caring for them, working, and tending to disaster recovery.

Oh, and school.

“She didn’t know if she could balance it all,” said Amber Dail, an instructor at Sprunt whose kids go to school with Jenkins’s. “I just couldn’t imagine dealing with everything she was going through. It was so sad and just so tough.”

Jenkins would sit for hours thinking about what to do. She had a job. Plenty of experience. She wanted to graduate, but more than anything she knew her family needed her. They needed a home. They needed a plan to rebuild that left money for food on the table. And her children needed attention and help catching up after 30 days of missed class time.

Could she really afford to graduate anymore?

The plot of land where Ginger Jenkins’s home once sat lies bare now, a marker identifying her address is all that remains. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC.

Students see their resiliency tested

The same question plagued thousands of community college students in North Carolina’s coastal and inner coastal region – a broad collection of tourist and working-class towns. Outlaw mulled that question for weeks. It was a much more difficult question than starting community college in the first place.

Outlaw grew up in Eastern North Carolina, the product of a working-class family. He struggled in math and didn’t enjoy high school. Eventually, the lure of ending arithmetical struggles and earning money became too strong. He dropped out in ninth grade.

“It was one of the biggest mistakes I made,” he says now. “My heart goes out to anyone who left school, because I know just how hard it is when you make that decision.”

Outlaw took minimum wage jobs and worked hard to support himself. He married and later started his own towing business. When they saved up some money, he and his wife started looking for a home. Like many young couples, they made a list of all the things their dream house would offer. They wanted a comfortable sanctuary in the country; some place he could grow fruit trees.

They moved into a secluded, single-story home in Beulaville, just 10 miles down the road from Kenansville and two miles west of the river. They started a grapevine and grew apples, pears, peaches and figs.

But as the years waned, Outlaw realized dropping out placed a harsh ceiling on his earning potential. He had gotten his GED some 12 years after dropping out, but now he was becoming increasingly committed to correcting course on a career track, hoping to learn a good trade and provide a little more financial security as the breadwinner for his family.

“I just remember thinking, I’m not getting any younger,” he said. “I really didn’t want to wait any longer.”

So he sold the only business asset he had – his tow truck – and set aside money for community college. Between the money for the truck, odd jobs he picked up here and there, and some financial aid, he was able to start his community college journey.

“We didn’t live great,” he said, “but our bills were paid on time and we had food in the house. I was cutting grass, I was trimming trees, hauling off trash, picking up scrap metal – any kind of odd job I could do.”

When Outlaw enrolled at Sprunt, he set a goal for himself, and he shared it with his family. He would work. He would support his family. And he would overcome his math struggles. He would earn straight A’s.

“It was important because I wanted my stepdaughter to see that,” he said. “That you can accomplish something like that if you set your mind to it.”

He knew math would be a challenge. Proactively, he worked with counselors at Sprunt and secured a tutor who helped him with extra math practice. Outlaw was on track with his goal through his first three semesters, earning A’s in every class, boasting perfect attendance and landing reliably on the President’s List each semester. All the while, he found time during the day to volunteer through the college’s Spartan Table program, a food pantry that makes sure students in need don’t go hungry.

As he started his final semester at Sprunt, Outlaw got an entry-level job as a welder through contacts he made at the college. He started making steady pay for the first time in years, finally putting a little distance between income and expenses.

“We were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel after all this time in school not having a steady income,” he said. “We’re finally getting some money and then – bam – Florence hits us.”

Just one month after he started welding.

When the reports of flooding threats rolled in alongside the storm, Outlaw prepared for the worst he could imagine– but his imagination fell short of reality.

Outlaw’s family evacuated to Potters Hill ahead of the hurricane. He wasn’t far behind, but he waited until the very last minute so he could keep the power on as long as possible – eager to save the contents of his refrigerator and freezer. When he left, the road outside his home was already halfway flooded.

After the storm winds died down, he took a chainsaw and cut his way through trees to visit the house.

“No water was at the house when I got there,” he said, “but I knew that water was rising and that more was coming.”

He headed back to Potters Hill and his family. It was weeks before he could return to his home. In fact, he had no idea how his house fared until the fire department visited his street by boat to take pictures of flooded homes. Outlaw’s neighbor tagged him in one of the posted photos. He had no idea what to expect.

What would it have mattered if he did? Hardly anyone would have been prepared for what he saw.

“My heart just dropped,” he said. “We knew then that we had a lot of damage to deal with.”

Kenneth Outlaw’s home has been gutted, but the smell of mold remains and he lacks the expertise or funding to get professional help to repair the framework and rebuild. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

Water had infiltrated and sat in his house for weeks. The home was a total loss. The Outlaws were able to salvage a few things – photos that were high up on the wall, his stepdaughter’s medicine from a cabinet, a few tools. Everything else had to be thrown out to the roadside: furniture, beds, appliances, memories.


Everything in perspective

“It is almost as if we are starting over as young kids again, starting out on our own,” he said in the months that followed. “This hurts, but life goes on. This storm has put everything in perspective for me. I was able to save my family and that is all that matters.”

It’s often all that matters in the wake of disaster. Florence claimed more than 40 lives in North Carolina. Nine of those lives were lost in Duplin County, where Outlaw and Jenkins live. Inevitably, though, after the relief of surviving passes, the reality of what’s been lost settles in. For Outlaw, that was a couple weeks after the flooding claimed his home. He was living in the parsonage of his church, which was offered to him and his family indefinitely.

“They offered us a place to live for free, they were so generous,” Outlaw said. “But we didn’t want to inconvenience them. Somebody else might need it.”

Homeless – literally – and worried about others’ needs. Glimpses of Outlaw’s humility and concern for others aren’t rare. But this example was certainly remarkable. Especially considering the family had just gotten word they wouldn’t qualify for a FEMA-provided camper when he made the decision to move out.

He scraped together what he could in order to meet the unexpected expense of finding temporary shelter, buying a used 31-foot camper and parking it in his storm-ravaged backyard. He moved in with his wife, adult stepdaughter and three inside dogs.

After classes resumed at Sprunt, Outlaw remained busy working with FEMA fighting for help. He would meet church volunteers as they helped to muck and gut the home. He met with contractors to understand the cost of restoring his home. After work, he would lie on the bed in the back of his cramped trailer and study on his cell phone – because without WiFi access his laptop was no help.

Just outside the room, he could hear the three dogs, his wife and his stepdaughter. He tried to concentrate, but in the back of his mind was fear that the muggy conditions or stress might bring on his stepdaughter’s seizures, a condition she’s had for years and is exacerbated by heat and excitement.

“It was a nightmare,” Outlaw said. “I got some studying done, but it was very difficult. It was the worst educational experience I ever had.”

Soon after classes restarted, FEMA advised that they could offer some assistance – $17,000 – but nowhere near the $40,000-plus needed to make the house livable. “We were not in a flood zone, so we did not have flood insurance… It was either walk away with nothing or rebuild.”

Meantime, he got another piece of bad news. With all of his time spoken for, extra math tutoring was no longer an option. And with all the scrambling to meet basic needs for him and his family, his cell phone study time was proving insufficient. He had a C- in math. Like his peace of mind, his 4.0 GPA was on the verge of extinction.

“That was actually the worst part of the whole experience,” he said.

‘Dealing with the cumulative effects that come with these storms’

Outlaw and Jenkins are exactly whom the politicians are talking at when they promote the American Dream. Outlaw accepted dropping out as a mistake. Rather than grow bitter, he earned a GED and enrolled in community college to better himself and his family. Jenkins got laid off after two decades of accounting work. She enrolled in community college for a degree that would allow her to command the salary her experience earned.

Neither are looking to get rich quick. Neither are afraid of hard work. But here they both stood at the precipice of leaving college early because massive flooding in their community forced them to choose between daily basic needs and the promise of a more comfortable tomorrow.

And they’re not alone. Thousands of North Carolina’s community college students faced this decision in the wake of three massive storms hitting the Carolina Coast within the past three years.

A phlebotomy student and single parent at Carteret Community College who lost three weeks’ wages due to damage caused by Hurricane Florence. A business administration student at Bladen Community College who was rescued by helicopter from her home and lost everything. An associate of arts student at Coastal Carolina Community College, whose home was declared uninhabitable and lived with her kids in a tent under her carport.

These are just a few of the stories from community college students who faced financial distress after Hurricane Florence threatened their ability to continue classes. In these three cases, and many others, state emergency grants allowed them to stay in school by paying for rent, car payments and courses. For thousands others, however, studies were interrupted.

Ginger Jenkins’s children look at the massive flooding in Duplin County, where water covered several highways and even shut down Interstate 40 after Hurricane Florence passed. Courtesy Ginger Jenkins.

Across 19 community colleges along the state’s eastern coast, more than 12,000 students stopped out after Florence. North Carolina’s community colleges are funded based on the previous year’s enrollment. Data compiled by the state’s community college system showed that, added up, all of the lost full-time, part-time and certificate students added up to the equivalent of nearly 1,500 full-time students.

Now, one year later, some students have returned and graduated. Others are re-enrolled, walking a longer road toward graduation than anticipated. And for some, graduation is a dream deferred.

In North Carolina, the mission of the Community College System includes “[opening] the door to high-quality, accessible educational opportunities that minimize barriers to post-secondary education…”

Traditionally, for many who enroll in community colleges, those barriers looked like struggling to balance ongoing paid employment and family obligations with time spent in classes, studying, or training.

That’s changed the past three years. As storms pop up in the Atlantic regularly during hurricane season, some wonder if the change could be the new normal.

“There are many in our communities and throughout North Carolina who are dreading what could await them this year,” said Toddi Steelman, dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of Environment. “You can see it in people’s faces … We are dealing with the cumulative effects that come with these storms. And they have enormous effects on our communities and our emergency responders. The repeated flooding, the repeated losses and the repeated trauma, all deplete our collective resiliency.”

Resiliency is a prerequisite for many community college students. Many are tasked with overcoming obstacles even before submitting college applications.

While some students attend community college to save money or supplement their career portfolio with certificates, many are searching for life-changing opportunity.

More and more, however, that opportunity means taking on the risk of extreme weather. How you fare against those odds is the difference between success and failure. The gamble is a scary one for community college students in these parts, considering the demographics of those in most rural Eastern North Carolina communities, not to mention the profile of the average community college student.

“Disasters are equal in the fact that they do impact everyone, but they also discriminate,” Steelman said. “We know that those who are most vulnerable — the poor, the disenfranchised, the disabled, and the elderly — suffer the greatest in these events. And they continue to suffer long after those of us with more resources have been able to recover.”

Community college students tend to fit this idea of vulnerable. It doesn’t take an unprecedented natural disaster like Hurricane Matthew or Hurricane Florence to push them out of college. A broken-down car, changed work hours, new financial needs or a family member’s illness — roadblocks large and small force students statewide to stop enrolling for a semester or longer.

But for thousands of students across the region, Florence threatened to be a tipping point.

Stop-gap solutions

North Carolina is getting more accustomed to and experienced at handling storms. In the wake of Florence, the legislature allocated $5 million in emergency funds for the state’s community college system to divvy up among 21 impacted colleges. The money went to help students like those described above.

But for some community college students, the problems feel too big and the solutions too small. A sense of loneliness in the face of tremendous life upheaval pervades this group of diploma seekers, who might not come out and ask for help.

“That’s the fear, I guess,” Carteret Community College President John Hauser said. “Do they know that the money is there? Will they come out and ask for help?”

While environmental experts and politicians work out longer-term solutions and the state aids with stop-gap emergency funds, some community colleges are taking a proactive approach to preventing stop outs.

At Pamlico Community College, for instance, the college is taking a personal approach. Pamlico County is located on the Eastern Seaboard, bordered by the Pamlico River to the north, Neuse River to the south and the Atlantic on the east. The school is the smallest of North Carolina’s 58 community college, and flooding from recent storms have hit it hard – both by way of damage to facilities and lost enrollment.

Without the resources to divert to advisors and mentors, president Jim Ross has set up a team approach to ensuring students stay enrolled. These range from personal calls to students no longer signing up for classes to individually reaching out to students on the “purge” list, a ledger of students who are signed up but have not paid for the upcoming semester and are in danger of being unenrolled.

“We proceeded with going above and beyond the norm and lending a helping hand to say, ‘We care about you, let us help you, let’s do this together,’” Ross said. “It just shows you the team effort and caring about people as people, versus just as numbers.”

A May graduation

For Outlaw and Jenkins, help arrived in the form of non-profit aid.

Jenkins didn’t struggle with her college decision long. Once her kids were back in school and the family in their rental home, she got the little bit of breathing room she needed.

“It is difficult to keep your mind on work, to keep up with all the work,” she said last year. “I stay motivated knowing that I will graduate in May – I stay focused on that. … My plans are to clean up my property, graduate, keep working … and then hopefully I will be able to build my house back in a couple of years.”

In May, she crossed the first item off that to-do list. With help from family and friends, she replaced her kids’ school clothes and supplies, helped them finish out their school years and spent the little time she had left after work and classes on studying.

She graduated the same semester as Outlaw. She even got to walk across the stage.

“I didn’t think I was going to graduate,” she said. “But I did. I can understand not wanting to keep going, but we’re not supposed to give up. We’re supposed to keep striving.”

But her mind is plagued with questions. What will they do with their property, which has been in her family for almost 100 years and now sits vacant? And how long until they own a home of their own again?

“Every day it gets better,” Jenkins said. “It’s hard for the kids. Because they thought this was their forever home. My children have never moved into another home before. This was their one and only home. So seeing their house torn down and understanding you know, that we are not going back to our old house. We are adjusting to what works, what doesn’t work … There are some days that you want to cry, some days that you smile.”

Outlaw managed to struggle through his final semester at Sprunt, mostly using his cell phone to study and complete assignments. When he needed his laptop, he found a McDonald’s to borrow the WiFi and got his work done. But amid all the cash he was bleeding, there was another price to be paid by Outlaw: He got a C in math and missed out on the 4.0 goal.

“The president there at the time, he was such a nice man,” Outlaw said. “He told me when I was ready, I could retake that math class and he would pay for it out of his own pocket.”

But the 4.0 goal was so far down the list of priorities. His family needed a home, and he needed to move on to other life goals. He scraped by, largely on the back of the hard work he put in the first three semesters, and earned enough credits to graduate last May.

He couldn’t walk to get his diploma, though. He was busy figuring out what to do with his damaged property.

He found a small house in Goldsboro and now commutes 45 minutes to Kinston for his welding job. He’s paying a second mortgage though, as payment is still due on the house he has now given up rebuilding. FEMA has yet to determine if they will buy out the property, but Outlaw has settled on the reality that his dream home will never be a home again.

Extensive mold still plagues that dream home, and he recently discovered termite damage that the previous owners may have covered up.

He’s in his late 40s now, and money remains tight. Still, he talks about gratitude for shelter over his head and food to eat. He leans on faith and, despite money going out just about as quickly as it comes in, he prays for others. If this experience has taught him anything, it’s that he needs to keep working hard to be prepared for the future.

“My faith was rocked a little bit, but I never lost it,” Outlaw said. “You can’t help but to ask, ‘Why? Why did this happen to me? Why to my family?’ But, I believe God has a plan.”

He loves his welding job, but like Jenkins, he’s left with may questions. He wonders how long his body can physically withstand the rigors of welding. He wonders what to do with his moldy, tattered home. He wonders whether he’s gained any ground by getting his degree and a better-paying job only to take on a second mortgage. He wonders how long ends will continue to meet.

Kenneth Outlaw looks at his once-dream home, now bending under the weight of water damage. He has resigned himself to the reality he won’t be able to repair or rebuild it. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC.

Catalyst for lasting change

Last Spring, Jenkins and Outlaw sat with a group of North Carolina philanthropists that focuses on postsecondary attainment. For Jenkins and Outlaw, it led to financial freedom.

“We told our stories there,” Outlaw said. “It was moving. There were people crying. It was very emotional.”

One of the philanthropists offered both students full scholarships if they chose to finish their bachelor’s degrees. Both have enrolled in nearby University of Mount Olive, pursuing degrees in business administration. It’s the kind of degree that represents hope for a long-lasting, well-paying desk job for Outlaw. For Jenkins, the bachelor degree represents the possibility of reinvention.

She has been substitute teaching, but once she graduates from Mount Olive she hopes to teach full-time. And her next goal is a master’s degree, because she hopes one day to teach at the college level.

“There were days when I thought, do I need to go ahead and fix all this and worry about education later – but it’s worked out,” Jenkins said. “It’s worked itself out. There’s some days I still don’t know how it’s going to work out, but it does somehow or another.”

The scholarship doesn’t help with food. It doesn’t help with getting out from under the cost of lost homes. Those burdens remain on Jenkins and Outlaw, but both have grown accustom to struggle. And if they can hold on and graduate, both of their eyes beam with the incredible lessons they hope they’ll have passed onto their kids.

“I really wasn’t ready to enroll this year, because we’re still dealing with all of this,” Outlaw said, motioning around the wreckage inside his flooded home. “But I didn’t want to complain. It’s such an honor and such a wonderful opportunity. I just don’t want to let The Belk Foundation down, or James Sprunt. Because I respect a lot of people there.”

Outlaw has held onto that C- in his final math class at Sprunt for longer than any other grade he remembers receiving. He sorely wishes he could have taken then-interim president Ken Boham up on his offer to retake the class. It stands out, alongside the house, as the blemish his hard work hasn’t been able to fix since Florence.

But he’s hoping graduating from university will offer opportunities that will help him forget about that shortcoming. He’s not harboring dreams of becoming rich, but he hopes that a well-paying job after graduation means comfort – and that he can start to rebuild his life post-Florence.

“It’s not over yet,” he said. “I still relive it. It’s still on our minds.”

When the day comes that Florence is finally nothing more than a memory — if he’s still up for it, that math class at Sprunt will be waiting.

“The offer still stands,” Boham said.

This is the third piece in a series on challenges facing community college students titled: An Extra Hill to Climb. This installment was co-published by, which is running it as part of their Poverty Next Door spotlight. and Spotlight partnered to illustrate the challenges facing many community college students through stories from North Carolina and data illustrating the broader challenges in the United States.

Why the grueling educational path was worth it for one early childhood teacher


by Liz Bell

December 2, 2019

When Shari Johnson decided she wanted to go back to school and pursue early childhood education, she was working at Wendy’s and making minimum wage. Inspired to go into education by her family of educators and her love for young children, she decided to take out loans to pay for tuition and books.

Johnson kept working while she earned her associate degree at Durham Technical Community College. As she switched from her part-time job to a full-time position teaching infants and toddlers in Durham, North Carolina, she took no more than two courses each semester, trying to balance her 40-hour workweeks with her studies. It took her five years to get her degree.

“I could not go full time” at Durham Tech, Johnson said. “I had to work and go to school.”

Like Johnson, two out of three community college students throughout the country work while attending school, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. And nearly one-third of community college students in the 2015-16 school year were working full-time.

Johnson has her dream job, she said — caring for infants and toddlers at First Presbyterian Day School. She has been there since her first semester at Durham Tech.

“This right here is me,” Johnson said with an infant on her lap while her 2-year-old students napped on cots down the hallway. “Early childhood is me. Infants, toddlers, and twos, that’s me. … Until I’m just too old to be in the classroom, I don’t see myself being in anything besides early childhood classrooms.”

But when Johnson started as an assistant toddler teacher, she said, she was making about $8.50 an hour — only a dollar more than her pay at Wendy’s.

“It was because it was my first year starting off and I (was) still in school,” she said. “… At the same time, who can live off of that?”

Johnson was given raises as she moved to a lead position at the end of 2017 with her employer’s expectation that she would finish her degree. She graduated in May and now makes $13.76 an hour. That comes out to about $550 a week, compared with the median weekly wage of Americans with associate degrees of $862.

Still, Johnson’s hourly wage is more than three dollars better than the median hourly wage for child care workers in North Carolina of $10.35, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The nationwide median is $11.17.

Low pay can keep early educators across the state and country from more education, more economic mobility, and more effectiveness in the classroom. Research says higher education means more effective care and teaching, but many prospective teachers struggle with the cost of postsecondary education. Early educators across the state and country are usually paid significantly less than elementary school teachers and, in some cases, are better off financially if they work in service or retail jobs. A 2016 report from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment found that 46% of child care workers nationally were part of families relying on some form of public assistance.

For those caring for children during the most rapid years of brain development — the first couple years of life — the pay is even lower. 

“Baby and toddler teachers typically make less, they typically have lower levels of education, they typically turn over or say they’re going to leave at faster rates than the rest of the teaching population,” said Sue Russell, executive director of T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood National Center, which provides financial support for early educators striving to continue their education. 

Johnson pauses to interact with individual children during group activities. Liz Bell/EducationNC
Johnson has known many of her students since they were infants because of her school’s “looping” technique. Liz Bell/EducationNC
Johnson transitions her students to arts and crafts. Liz Bell/EducationNC

“I was really lucky to get this job,” Johnson said. Presbyterian Day, which earns five out of five stars on the state’s child care rating system, is committed to paying teachers more as they increase their education, and provides teachers with medical and dental benefits.

For many others across the early educator workforce, that’s not a reality. In a 2015 Child Care Services Association workforce study, only 19% of licensed child care providers across the state covered the full cost of health insurance. More than half provided no health care coverage at all.

“The term ‘babysitting’ I think we still hear often with [teachers of] infants and toddlers, and we need to figure out how to get rid of that term altogether,” said Cathy Collie-Robinson, head of the early childhood program at Durham Tech and one of Johnson’s former instructors. “… We really do need to figure out the compensation component quickly.”

Even in a ‘lucky’ position, Johnson said working and going to school takes time, finances, and knowing your personal limits.

“That’s what took me so long at Durham Tech,” she said. “I can’t just not work and go to school.” 

Although awareness of the importance of high-quality early care and education is increasing, pay and respect for the workforce lags. In North Carolina, the only state requirement to work in private child care is one community college course. 

“There’s this great awareness of the importance of the first five years of life,” Collie-Robinson said. “The science and information has been around for a very long time, but now we have everyone who is talking about it. … The more educated our teachers can be working with children in those most critical years, the better the outcomes will be for children. … It is a struggle to have a higher minimum requirement but not options for increased salaries.”

Johnson lines her students up to wash their hands before lunch. Liz Bell/EducationNC
During arts and crafts, Johnson helps a student glue animals on a barn. Liz Bell/EducationNC
Circle time is where Johnson infuses most of her curriculum before students head to centers for play-based learning. Liz Bell/EducationNC

Johnson said she was taking a break from school at North Carolina Central University when she decided to return to school. She previously studied secondary education but struggled in a large university setting. Johnson said she thought a community college, with more individualized attention from professors, would push her to succeed.

“Community college is what brought me back,” she said. “Durham Tech was what set the stone.”

This time, she knew she had to go for early childhood. Her weekends were often filled with caring for young children for family and friends — sometimes up to six at once.

“I just sat back and was like, ‘I really love the younger child and how much joy they bring in my life,’” Johnson said.

Johnson said she has built uniquely strong relationships with the children and families in her class because the school “loops,” meaning a lead and assistant teacher stay with children from infancy to two years old. She has known many of the children in her classroom since they were six weeks old. Though she loves her two-year-old classroom, she said she especially connects with infants, like the one she holds in her lap and who is calm and content. “Even an infant will tell you if they’re comfortable or not,” she said. “They have emotions to be able to share with you.”

She has spent her first five years going back to school and working, during which she has fallen in love with her job and her students. She said during weekends, she is usually ready to return to her “friends” by Sunday. “I live for this job,” she said. It is emotionally and physically taxing work. A 2015 study of the workforce found 30% of center-based staff and directors experienced depressive symptoms. A recent North Carolina postsecondary training focused on how to understand and cope with the emotionally-draining work of early childhood education.

But for now, Johnson said she never takes vacation and never wants to. “The only reason why I’m tired is because I’m a night owl and I don’t go to sleep,” she said.

Johnson said she does not see Latisha Edwards as her assistant but as her teaching partner. “Children know when you and your coworker are not getting along,” Johnson said. “That’s important.” Liz Bell/EducationNC

Johnson will soon start an online program at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro to earn her bachelor’s degree. She said she is taking out loans once again to pay for tuition. She wants to ensure she has the options that a four-year degree will bring later in life. Many of her colleagues, she said, are still doing this work in their 50s and later.

“It can wear and tear your body,” Johnson said. “It can wear you down.”

She said her fellow educators at Presbyterian Day supported her journey through community college and will continue to help with homework and questions moving forward.

“It wasn’t too overwhelming because everyone that I work with currently is either in school, finishing school, or have already graduated,” Johnson said. “We worked together.”

Johnson benefits from WAGE$ NC, another program from the T.E.A.C.H. center, which pays early educators stipends to incentivize both retention and higher education. “The more education you have, the bigger the check,” Russell said. Johnson said she gets two $1,000 stipends a year. 

“Do we reach parity? No,” Russell said, referring to elementary school teacher pay. “Are they getting paid what they should be paid? No. But it’s an incremental step. It brings some level of economic relief.”

The daily work is complex and makes a difference in children’s development, Collie-Robinson said. “Everything that’s going on in the first three years of life is setting the foundation for the rest of this child’s life,” she said.

Johnson spends time at the end of each day documenting specifics of each of her students’ development, paying attention to big milestones and small details. 

“I can never stress that it is so important to find those milestones out in early childhood because when you get to public school, that’s when the label comes,” Johnson said. “That’s when the ADD and the ADHD come, and that’s when the behavior is out of control. If you stop it now, or handle it now, we can probably have less children going home or less children having behavior problems.”

Helping children learn how to express their emotions is a huge part of Johnson’s jobs. Whether those children have those skills, she said, is often noticeable once children enter the public school system in kindergarten. When a student is upset or frustrated, Johnson never denies the child’s emotional experience by saying, “It’s ok.”

“You can’t say that you’re ok, you can’t say that you’re fine if you’re crying or upset,” Johnson said. “Let’s talk about why you’re upset. Let’s express what it is or what happened for you to feel this way.”

When these children were infants, she would place them in front of a mirror in the classroom so they could start to acknowledge their emotions. Now that they’re two years old, she often still encourages them to go look in the mirror.

“We would definitely say, let’s go look at ourselves and see how we’re feeling,” she said. “Go look at your face, and see those tears going out of your face.”

Johnson answers a student’s question while consoling a child who is extra sleepy. Liz Bell/EducationNC
She even lets the student start nap time early. Liz Bell/EducationNC
Johnson comforts a child who felt left out from an activity exploring the texture of cotton. Liz Bell/EducationNC

Whether during circle time in the morning, where Johnson fits in curricular content like counting to 20 and animal sounds, or while she oversees students as they play in centers designed for exploratory learning, Johnson spends a lot of time acknowledging individual students. One student is tired an hour before nap time, so she lets him lie down while others dance around before lunch. One student is upset he didn’t get enough time feeling a piece of cotton, so she hugs him and lets him return to the cotton. Two students are fighting over sitting on a pillow while she reads to them, so she eventually takes away the pillow. There are constant small conflicts to resolve. Johnson is never sarcastic and never shows frustration.

“Children know when something is wrong,” she said. “Children know when you’re having a bad day. Children know when you and your coworker are not getting along.”

Johnson is proud of her students for how far they can count (almost to 25), that they know a stop sign is called an octagon with eight sides, and that they are developing individual personalities. Next year, they will move onto the three-year-old classroom and Johnson will begin again with a new cohort of infants. Leaving the students and families that have become her own, Johnson said, will be difficult.

“I might cry the entire week that it’s our last.”

This is the second piece in a series on challenges facing community college students titled: An Extra Hill to Climb. The series is a partnership between and Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity. and Spotlight partnered to illustrate the challenges facing many community college students by telling stories from North Carolina and sharing data on the broader challenges in the United States.

Liz Bell is a reporter for EducationNC. Click here to read the story on EdNC.

Addressing students’ basic needs to boost postsecondary attainment


by Analisa Sorrells and Robert Kinlaw

December 2, 2019

This is the first piece in a series on challenges facing community college students titled: An Extra Hill to Climb. The series is a partnership between and Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity. and Spotlight partnered to illustrate the challenges facing many community college students through stories from North Carolina and data illustrating the broader challenges in the United States.

Toby Bollinger, a veteran and student at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, saw his scholarships and financial aid disappear after making a simple mistake on his FAFSA. Suddenly, Bollinger found himself unable to pay his $900 monthly rent, unsure of where to turn or how to ask for help.

Bollinger ultimately paid his rent with support from Single Stop, a national nonprofit that works to provide coordinated access to a safety net of benefits and connect people to the resources they need to attain higher education, obtain good jobs, and achieve financial self-sufficiency.

But many students navigate higher education without connections to resources that meet their basic needs. A recent national study found that nearly half of students in two-year colleges experienced food insecurity — limited or uncertain access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food — and about three out of five experienced housing insecurity, which includes a broad set of challenges such as the inability to pay rent or utilities. And, according to the federal Government Accountability Office, food insecurity and housing insecurity impede students who are trying to get a degree or credential after high school.

With the establishment of North Carolina’s statewide attainment goal — 2 million 25- to 44-year-olds with a high-quality credential or college degree by 2030 — boosting postsecondary attainment is a topic of frequent discussion at education conferences, board meetings, and the like. Current projections are that North Carolina will have about 1.6 million adults who meet that attainment definition in 2030 — which means roughly 400,000 more residents will need to attain a postsecondary degree or credential to meet the demands of the state’s businesses and industries.

For students experiencing poverty, the journey to and through college is even more challenging. Among the students who graduated from a North Carolina public high school between 2009 and 2011 and enrolled in a postsecondary program before May 2012, economically disadvantaged students were less likely to enroll in a postsecondary degree program, persist to their second year of that program, and complete a degree or credential. Just one in three economically disadvantaged students completed a degree or credential in six years — compared with about three in five economically advantaged students.

These data, which come from a series of myFutureNC data briefings compiled by Carolina Demography, paint a clear picture: Strategies to boost postsecondary attainment must address poverty and economic disadvantage by working to meet students’ basic needs.

Meeting basic needs in a ‘Single Stop’

For many college students, unforeseen financial challenges — from a flat tire to legal fees to difficulty accessing federal benefits — can keep then from meeting basic needs, hindering their ability to attend classes, keep up with coursework, and pursue a higher education. Many college campuses offer services to support students through those hardships, but resources may be siloed across numerous organization or offices, difficult to access, or underutilized by students.

That’s where Single Stop’s solution comes in.

Launched in 2001, Single Stop USA is a national nonprofit organization that works to reduce poverty and help low-income families and students achieve economic security. Single Stop’s mission is to “build pathways out of poverty by leveraging partnerships and technology to connect people to existing resources, all through a unique one-stop shop.”

One of the ways Single Stop works is by establishing those “one-stop shops” on community college campuses where students can get coordinated wraparound support services such as benefits screening and application assistance, tax preparation services and financial counseling. Single Stop partners with colleges to integrate their economic empowerment model with student support and financial aid departments on campus, with the goal of increasing student retention and graduation. Single Stop’s college partnership model is outlined below.

Since Single Stop’s education programming launched in 2009, its offices have spread to more than 30 campuses from Oregon to Massachusetts, connecting 269,272 students to $548 million in benefits and services. In North Carolina, Single Stop has offices at two universities (Winston-Salem State, Johnson C. Smith) and eight community colleges (Asheville-Buncombe Technical, Davidson, Nash, Edgecombe, James Sprunt, Central Piedmont, Alamance, and Robeson).

Boosting postsecondary attainment

Single Stop’s impact on postsecondary attainment in North Carolina is evident through the personal stories of students — like Bollinger’s — and also backed up by data.

At Nash Community College, Single Stop has facilitated about 450 screenings resulting in $4.5 million worth of benefits for students — an average of $10,000 per student. In a retention and persistence study completed a few years ago, students who used Single Stop services had up to a 56% higher retention rate from year to year than their peers who did not use the services. And, Single Stop participants completed more credit hours per semester than they did before they sought help.

Marbeth Holmes, dean of student wellness and a professor at the college, feels confident that an upcoming retention and persistence study will show similar results.

“We use the data to encourage faculty and students to seek out help, to shatter the stigma of help-seeking … and to demonstrate the value in seeking help when you need it rather than waiting until it gets to the crisis point,” said Holmes. “We do about 50 class presentations each semester, letting students know about the resources and encouraging them to come out and use them before things collapse.”

Beyond North Carolina, a recent study by Metis Associates showed Single Stop’s impact on improving student outcomes at the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP). Roughly 96% of the study’s findings point to Single Stop services having a significant positive impact on three key target outcomes for both first-time college students and those who had prior college experience: semester-to-semester persistence, credit pass rates, and weighted GPA.

These results resonate especially with Melissa Aponte, a student at CCP.

“I faced every barrier listed on there that was designed for me to not be successful here at community college,” Aponte said. “I’m a non-traditional student, I’m a student-parent … and dealing with the systems, I’ve never felt so low [than] to ask for help. And thinking that those statistics were going to keep me in a hole. Now, I’m in honors, and I’m involved on campus because of services like this. Single Stop can really help you stay here.”

The study found that students using Single Stop services at CCP were much more likely to persist in college and had significantly higher ratios of completed to attempted credits than their counterparts. First-time college students at CCP using Single Stop also had, on average, significantly higher weighted GPAs than their counterparts.

Further, the study found that there was no single service that proved responsible for the results.

“They [Single Stop] tailored the services to individuals so they’re getting exactly what they need,” said Michael Scuello, senior associate for design and analysis at Metis Associates. “So these results actually make a great deal of sense. We shouldn’t find one single service that’s driving the results because these students are getting the services they need to get the results they need. That’s how wraparound services work.”

Aponte provided this advice for her fellow students at CCP:

“Just connect with people and don’t be afraid to ask for help. It doesn’t make you less of a person and [isn’t something] to be ashamed of … that’s your only opportunity to be successful in school.”

Analisa Sorrells is the Chief of Staff and Associate Director of Policy for EducationNC. Robert Kinlaw is EdNC’s multimedia strategist. Click here to read the article on EdNC.

Full bellies, hungrier minds: School breakfast innovations in North Carolina


By Rupen R. Fofaria

November 20, 2019

Tristan Chavez remembers going to first period hungry. Chavez is a nationally ranked soccer player who practiced first thing in the morning before heading to class — too late for before-school breakfast.

He works hard on the soccer field, and he also works hard in the classroom as he maintains a track to become the first person in his family to go to college. But the hunger made paying attention difficult. Who can think about symbolism on an empty stomach?

Last year, to his great relief, he started getting breakfast in class, during first period.

“At my school, students know that teachers care about us,” Chavez said. “Not just about the learning, but about all that we are and all that we can be.”

The Department of Public Instruction is partnering with organizations like No Kid Hungry, a national program launched by the nonprofit Share Our Strength, to develop and offer innovative school breakfast programs designed to help students like Chavez. And there are a lot of students like Chavez.

According to data compiled by No Kid Hungry, there is a significant breakfast gap in North Carolina. The breakfast gap is the difference between the number of students who eat free or reduced-price lunch and the number of students who eat school breakfast.

In North Carolina, of those who receive free or reduced-price lunch, only 58% are eating school breakfast. Additionally, only 42% of students who are eligible for free or reduced-price breakfast are eating breakfast.

These numbers offer insight into a specific group of students who may be hungry but aren’t getting fed. The state wants to take advantage of federal funding that is available to feed these students in recognition of the impact proper nutrition can have on a child’s ability to learn.

“School can be a place where they can get the good start to the day and be ready to learn,” said Julie Pittman, the 2018 Western Region Teacher of the Year who taught Chavez’s first-period class last year. “It eliminates the barrier for all kids, and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with whether you can afford to feed your kid.”

Students are hungry in the mornings for several reasons. Some can’t get a proper breakfast at home. More than one in five students in North Carolina struggle with hunger, as compared to one in seven nationally. According to the USDA, North Carolina is one of 12 states where food insecurity is above the national average.

But many students, whether they play a sport and have morning practice or because they’re just not hungry before they leave the home, sit down in class and hear the first bell two or more hours after they’ve had a proper meal.

“What about the kid who has to catch the bus at 5:45 in the morning?” Pittman asked. “They may have had breakfast at 5:30, but by the time they’ve gotten to school and had their first class, their lunch may not be until 11, and they may need another meal.”

The reason why they don’t get that at school has little to do with availability. Nearly every school in North Carolina participates in a school breakfast program, but traditionally this looks like a cafeteria-style breakfast offering before the school day begins.

If students don’t get to school in time to get through the breakfast line, sit down, and eat without being late to class, they’ll skip breakfast.

Julie Pittman addresses the State Board during its fall planning session at North Carolina A&T State University in November. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

DPI conducted several statewide surveys over the past decade asking why students don’t eat school breakfast.

“My bus is always late,” “I’m afraid to miss morning bell,” and “I don’t like standing in line with the big kids” were some of the responses. And, yes, economic shaming had something to do with it, too.

Lynn Harvey, chief of the state’s child nutrition services, remembers visiting a school and speaking with one student who thought school breakfast was just for poor people and didn’t want to make “the walk of shame.”

“But it’s for all children,” Harvey said. “We don’t want any child to feel ashamed because every child needs to eat breakfast.”

The state, in partnership with No Kid Hungry, is moving toward innovative school breakfast programs. Three programs No Kid Hungry highlights are grab-and-go, where students can stop by a cart and walk away with breakfast; breakfast in the classroom, where food is brought in and students have 15 minutes to eat together; and second-chance breakfast, where students can visit the cafeteria after the day has begun and grab a bite.

“I am not hungry at 7:30,” Harvey said, expressing her particular fondness for second-chance breakfast. “But boy am I ready to enjoy breakfast at 9:30.”

The choice of which innovative breakfast option to use is left to the school, and they base it on things like school layout, schedule, and student needs and preferences.

“It’s thinking outside the box,” said Fred Gilbert, child nutrition supervisor for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. “It’s accepting that it’s going to be different, and it’s going to take some planning. But it’s deciding that it’s worth it and finding the way that fits best for your school.”

The idea, Gilbert said, is to encourage the conversation. He says it’s about getting buy-in from school leaders, and then having school leadership, teachers, and nutritional staff work together to ensure kids are fed during the day without adding too much cleanup or taking too much time.

“It doesn’t have to take up a lot of time,” he said. “It can be done in those 15 minutes, and if you get the right processes in place, it doesn’t create a lot of the extra work for clean up and all of that. You have to ask, ‘Can we plan 15 minutes and have that in the planning concept,’ when you’re looking at the big picture moving forward.”

In some districts, it requires funding help via grant dollars to afford equipment – such as carts for grab-and-go breakfasts or ways to keep hot food hot and cold food cold.

And as for the planning, Harvey says it’s worth it.

“You get healthier students,” she said. “You get students who are ready to learn.”

According to No Kid Hungry, students who eat breakfast have 17.5% higher scores on standardized math tests, and they attend 1.5 more days of school per year. That’s why, according to the 2017 study, teachers reported digging into their own pockets to make sure their students weren’t hungry in class. Teachers reported spending an average of $300 per year buying their students food.

DPI is supporting the initiatives by providing training and professional development for school nutrition staff. The State Board recently made school nutrition a priority by recommitting to a resolution that makes time spent offering school breakfast during the school day count as instructional time.

Meanwhile, Pittman is traveling the state to help encourage these discussions, answer questions and offer advice from her experience working with dozens of schools. She is on loan from Rutherford County Schools this year to serve as educator outreach manager for No Kid Hungry.

She started advocating for school breakfast last year when she was invited to the governor’s mansion for a luncheon in 2018.

“I think one of the things that falls through the cracks sometimes is understanding childhood hunger,” she said. “I think because of my personal experience with it, but also because of the students I’ve taught, it’s just a natural passion of mine.”

As a parent, Pittman’s family has the resources for and access to healthy meals. But, like many families, the mornings and evenings are busy times. The family can’t always sit down together for a family meal every day. She is grateful that her kids’ schools can provide what she can’t: “They get a family meal every morning in their class,” she said.

As a teacher, Pittman has noticed her students stashing food in their backpacks — half-eaten burgers, open cartons of milk. She’s seen hunger in her classrooms.

“I knew that probably they were taking that food home for an evening meal,” she said. “Or, even worse, they were taking it home for a younger sibling who wasn’t being served by the public school system.”

From a 2017 survey by No Kid Hungry.

She remembers Monday mornings as the worst.

“Mondays are horrible for kids who haven’t eaten for three days,” she said.

She’s also seen the positive impact of getting students breakfast after the school day begins.

“[I’m] somebody who understands what it means to educate the whole child,” she said. “And that doesn’t necessarily mean through content and curriculum. It actually means that we, as a public school, are a one-stop shop for our students. They come to us early in the morning, and they long for food and they long for belonging and they long for love and acceptance. They long for all of it. And we’re there for them as a public school system to give it to them.”

Since getting involved last year, Pittman has visited several districts, met with school nutrition directors across the state, and helped districts write grants for new breakfast programs.

She’s seen several counties adopt one of the three innovative ways of getting students breakfast during the school day and increase the number of children they feed by hundreds.

“There’s a lot of excitement in districts that have huge breakfast gaps,” she said. “They’re all seeing that there’s value in this work. They’re going to change the narrative for many kids in their schools.”

While progress is being made, there is much to be done. Harvey said the first goal is to reduce the breakfast gap by increasing the number of students who receive free and reduced-price lunch also getting breakfast from 59% modestly up to 70%. The state will receive an additional $2.5 million in federal funding, by way of school breakfast reimbursements, if it accomplishes this.

“We’re not where we want to be,” Harvey said. “We still have issues we need to address in order to bridge the gap, so to speak.”

Rupen R. Fofaria is a reporter for EdNC. Click here to read the article on Southerly.

How the government fails low-income renters after natural disasters


By Amal Ahmed

November 14, 2019

A flooded apartment complex in Katy, Texas, after Hurricane Harvey hit the Houston area in 2017.

More than two years after Hurricane Harvey dumped 60 inches of rain over southeast Texas in four days, Brenda Jones is still waiting for her life to return to normal — the way it was before the storm hit. “Everything is in God’s hands,” she told me one morning in October, her voice shaking.

The apartment Jones was renting in Aransas Pass, a town northeast of Corpus Christi, was damaged by floodwaters; mold in the walls made it unsafe for her to live there. She had only a few days to vacate, so she packed what belongings she could salvage into her car. For six months, Jones, who is in her 60s and has cancer, lived out of her car or in temporary housing, using money from a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) program that provides temporary lodging assistance. She currently lives off an income that’s less than a third of Nueces County’s median.  

The stress of losing her home exacerbated her health problems, and Jones has been in and out of the hospital since then for cancer treatments and other issues. The apartments she secured after Harvey were further away from her family, church, and doctors. She lost her car when she couldn’t keep up with monthly payments, and had to rely on others to keep her appointments. “Getting around to the doctors or church, I know I’m bothering people,” she said, close to tears. “But I needed to get those tests done.”

Now, Jones is trying to move again — this time into a senior housing community closer to her family. The apartment she’s been living in for the last year has left her feeling unsettled, and she hasn’t been able to put the past two years behind her yet. “I just want peace of mind again,” she said.

The deck is stacked against renters like Jones and other low-income, black and Hispanic renters struggling to get back on their feet after a hurricane. That’s the argument at the heart of a lawsuit filed in October on behalf of her and three other renters who were unable to secure financial assistance after the storm. The lawsuit alleges that the policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Texas General Land Office (GLO), a state agency that oversees land and mineral rights as well as disaster recovery, have had a “disparate impact on minority households” affected by the hurricane. (Both HUD and the GLO declined to comment on pending litigation.)

Housing experts, researchers, and community advocates say the lack of financial assistance for renters is a problem common in minority communities around the South and U.S. Renters in southeast Texas impacted by Harvey were predominantly black and Hispanic, while homeowners were predominantly white. Across the U.S., minority residents are nearly twice as likely to rent compared to white residents, and the rate of black, Hispanic, and Asian homeownership is lower than the national average, while the rate of white homeowners is several percentage points higher than average. Because of this disparity, in some cases more state and federal disaster aid goes to white residents who are homeowners. After Hurricane Irma hit Florida in 2017, a similar discrepancy occurred. 

“The issues that are pointed out in this [Texas] case are happening in nearly every jurisdiction after a disaster,” says Sarah Saadian, senior director of public policy at the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “In many ways, disaster recovery funds reinforce segregation and direct money away from poor people and people of color towards homeowners and white communities.” 

For much of U.S. history, property ownership was exclusively reserved for white citizens, who could accrue wealth on land passed down for generations, while black families were barred from federally backed mortgages, or from living on the same block as white families. The financial benefits of homeownership still aren’t evenly distributed: black homeowners in New Orleans, for example, have long been segregated into low-lying, flood-prone areas of the city. When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, black homeowners were given smaller grants from disaster relief programs than white homeowners living on higher ground. A housing center settled with the federal government for $62 million in 2011. 

“The government has been subsidizing property owners since at least the 1800s,” said Jim Elliott, a professor of sociology at Rice University who studies natural disasters and social inequalities. Before there were formalized programs like the National Flood Insurance Program, state and federal governments would sometimes waive taxes for property owners affected by any number of natural disasters: flooding in the Mississippi Valley, earthquakes in San Francisco, and wildfires in the West. 

In the November general election, Texans approved a constitutional amendment that could subtly reinforce the inequities between renters and homeowners recovering from a disaster by granting temporary tax exemptions on damaged property. In some ways, the proposition acts as a regressive tax, Elliot said. “At the state and local level, governments don’t want you to move out of their jurisdiction — if you are paying higher taxes, you probably have a higher income already.”

Federal and state disaster recovery programs do allocate funds for rebuilding rental housing, but hardly any of that money goes directly to tenants; instead, it goes to property developers or landlords tasked with repairing, rebuilding or constructing new rental units. Neither the federal government or Texas requires that rebuilt housing units should be reserved for displaced residents.

Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, visits Houston in 2018, a year after Hurricane Harvey. Credit: HUD

After Hurricane Harvey, homeowners and renters were equally likely to apply for government assistance, but renters were more likely to have their claims denied, according to a Rice University study. Those who can afford private renter’s insurance might be able to recoup losses, but the insurance industry reports that just over a third of all renters in the U.S. have any type of policy. Some early research shows that after Harvey, evictions increased in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods; a 2014 study found that after Hurricane Katrina, renters were more likely than homeowners to experience “housing loss.”

The Texas lawsuit alleges that most of the $5 billion in disaster relief is for homeowners and that the Texas General Land Office inflated the estimated financial need of homeowners by $4 billion. Renters had to prove they had $2,000 in property losses, and the agency determined that only about 38,000 were in need of assistance. The lawsuit states this calculation excluded people whose apartments were rendered uninhabitable from less severe water damage — which could mean up to 71,000 people were actually in need.

“It’s very easy to fall through the cracks, since most renters no longer have the same address,” said Carlos Martin, a researcher and fellow at the Urban Institute, adding that many people also don’t keep receipts or track of the value of their belongings in case of disasters. “Renters have a harder time finding affordable housing, they have less wealth by definition since they don’t own property. [After a disaster] it creates a spiral of financial setbacks.” 

There are many other expenses related to disaster recovery besides property loss, Martin said. “We don’t think about the loss of jobs, rise in rents, longer commutes if you’re displaced, the difficulties in turning off utility payments,” he said, “all of which would be more than the cost of a sofa you lost in a storm.” 

When it hit, Hurricane Harvey was the third 500 year-flood to hit southeast Texas in less than five years. This year, Tropical Storm Imelda pelted the city with rain again, causing record flooding. Constant rainfall earlier this year damaged homes and farms in the Mississippi Delta, and hurricanes have hit low-income communities in North Carolina and Florida hard in recent years. As flood-prone areas of the U.S. are rebuilt — as well as regions vulnerable to tornadoes, wildfires and other disasters — these inequalities deepen, according to Elliot’s research: in the years or decades after disasters, white residents tend to accumulate more wealth as federal assistance brings more private investment, driving up property values in predominantly white neighborhoods. Black residents in the same county lose wealth.

In extreme cases, like the coastal Texas city of Galveston, public housing for low-income renters — many of them people of color — is the last thing to be rebuilt. In the decade since Hurricane Ike, the city’s median income rose by $6,000, according to the Texas Tribune, while the city’s black population dropped by 15% as residents were displaced. In New Orleans, Katrina displaced a significant portion of the city’s black middle class. After Hurricane Sandy pummeled New Jersey in 2012, civil rights groups and housing advocates won a settlement on behalf of low-income, minority renters who were left out of disaster relief programs. The federal government agreed to provide direct funding to renters, re-review denied aid applications, and offer translation services for non-English speaking applicants. 

Damaged and displaced belongings after Hurricane Harvey. Credit: Jill Carlson/Flickr

In July, Houston Congressman Al Green introduced the Reforming Disaster Recovery Act of 2019, which could help introduce these types of changes in other areas of the country. The bill calls for more transparency around demographic data collected by FEMA and other agencies; a streamlined application for aid programs; and an equitable distribution of aid between homeowners, renters, and the homeless. 

The bill is up for a vote in the House and Senate. In the meantime, the Texas lawsuit could be the only way for Jones, and other renters like her in the state, to claim their fair share of disaster relief. As Jones struggles to find yet another apartment to live in — one she can afford, that’s near her family — the city around her is moving on. 

“They help the people they want to help,” she said. “I can see the money in [other parts of the] city,” she said of Aransas Pass. “But not here. It’s been a roller coaster.”

Amal Ahmed is an Austin-based journalist who primarily covers climate change and environmental justice. Click here to read the article on Southerly.

E(race)ing Inequities | Students of color less likely to earn industry-recognized certificate than white peers, report finds


By James E. Ford and Nicholas Triplett

August 27, 2019

This is an excerpt from “E(race)ing Inequities: The State of Racial Equity in North Carolina Public Schools” by the Center for Racial Equity in Education (CREED). Go here to read the full report and to find all content related to the report, including the companion report Deep Rooted.

WorkKeys is an alternative ACT test that is intended for high school students who plan to pursue career and technical diplomas. According to ACT, WorkKeys scores are intended to help students and employers compare potential employees on necessary skills (ACT, 2018). Over 23,000 employers, including over 3600 in North Carolina, recognize and/or recommend a WorkKeys National Career Readiness Certificate as a measure of foundational workplace skills (ACT, 2019). 

WorkKeys measures applied mathematics, locating information, and reading for information. Students earn tiered certificates: Platinum, Gold, Silver, Bronze, and No Certificate. According to ACT, Inc., a Gold certificate indicates that a student possesses skills for approximately 85% of jobs that have been profiled by WorkKeys, a Silver certificate indicates that a student possesses skills for approximately 65% of jobs that have been profiled by WorkKeys, and Bronze indicates that a student possesses skills for approximately 30% of jobs that have been profiled by WorkKeys.

In 2012-13, WorkKeys became part of North Carolina’s school accountability program. The state administers the ACT WorkKeys assessment to all students pursuing a Career and Technical Education (CTE) diploma who complete CTE course sequence prior to graduation. The NC Department of Public Instruction positions WorkKeys as a gauge of career readiness and is widely recognized as an industry credential ( As part of the CTE program, state and local educational agencies maintain partnerships with business and industry as a means of providing students with clear pathways to jobs in their chosen career.1 


Approximately 44,000 students took the WorkKeys assessment in North Carolina in 2016-2017. Figure 10.1 shows the proportion of WorkKeys test-takers and the proportion of total North Carolina student population by racial/ethnic group. 

White and American Indian students took WorkKeys at higher rates than their proportion of all North Carolina students. Asian, Black, Hispanic, and Multiracial students took WorkKeys at lower rates. The difference between the proportion of WorkKeys participation and proportion of total student population is highest for White students. 

Figure 10.2 shows the percentage of students attaining a Silver certificate or higher by race/ethnicity. See Appendix A, Table 6 for data on all WorkKeys certificate levels. 

Approximately 71% of students who took the WorkKeys assessment received at least a Silver certificate (Silver+). Asian and White students attain Silver+ certificates at the highest rates, followed by Multiracial, Hispanic, and Pacific Islander students. American Indian and Black students are least likely to attain Silver+ certificates. If Black students had achieved at the state average for WorkKeys, approximately 2000 more Black students would have attained Silver+ certificates. 

We also built statistical models to predict the likelihood of attaining Silver+ while controlling for other potentially relevant factors. In Model 1, scores were predicted based on race/ethnicity alone. Model 2 controlled for gender, socioeconomic status, language status, special education status, and previous achievement. White students were the comparison group for all other racial/ethnic groups.  

Race/ethnicity remained a significant and substantial predictor of attaining a Silver+ WorkKeys certificate for all student groups of color after accounting for other factors, except in the case of Pacific Islanders. The largest racial disparity existed between Black and White students, such that Black students were 61% less likely than White students to attain a Silver+ certificate net of other factors.Furthermore, the effect of being Black was approximately twice that of free/reduced lunch eligibility. Giftedness was the strongest predictor overall, such that AIG students are 8.3 times more likely to attain a Silver+ certificate than their non-AIG counterparts after controlling for race/ethnicity, gender, SES, language, and special education status.


With the exception of Hispanic students, race/ethnicity does not appear to exert a strong influence on which students take the WorkKeys assessment. However, there are substantial racial disparities in WorkKeys performance, with Asian and White students scoring well above the state average and American Indian and Black students scoring far below the state average. Furthermore, in comparison to White students, American Indian, Black, and Multiracial students were predicted to have dramatically lower rates of Silver+ certificate attainment after controlling for potentially relevant factors.   

The observed racial disparities in WorkKeys performance suggest that among students working toward CTE diplomas, non-Asian students of color, particularly American Indian and Black students, are over-exposed to the risk of graduating without the necessary skills to transition into jobs across numerous career pathways. When viewed in concert with our analysis of ACT scores, our analysis of WorkKeys further suggests that non-Asian students of color are at increased risk of failing to meet the state’s explicitly stated goal of college and career readiness for all students. 

Blackjewel left coal miners without pay. Now it might leave Appalachia thousands of acres of land to clean up.


By Mason Adams

August 25, 2019

For nearly a month, coal miners and their families have been blocking a coal train in protest of their employer, Blackjewel, which owes them paychecks since it went bankrupt. Credit: Mason Adams

On a hot morning in late July, coal miner Jeffrey Willig sat in the shade of a tent as his six children played next to the train tracks in Cumberland, Kentucky, where a pickup truck blocked a coal train. Willig and many other miners had lost their jobs nearly a month before when Revelation Energy and Blackjewel, two of the most powerful coal companies in the U.S., abruptly filed for bankruptcy. 

Willig worked in Revelation’s Cloverlick 3 mine in Harlan County for years. Before Revelation, he worked for Alpha Natural Resources, and before that, for Black Mountain Resources, an Alpha subsidiary once owned by Massey Energy, another major coal company. Willig was in the mines when Alpha went bankrupt in 2015 — but that was different, he said. 

Many Revelation and Blackjewel miners’ paychecks, which were already in their bank accounts, were taken out when the companies filed bankruptcy. Some families had already paid their monthly bills, and they overdrafted. “See, when Alpha shut us down, they still paid us for six months,” Willig said. “They didn’t just leave us like, ‘Hey, here you go, you’re done.’”

On July 29, Willig and other miners blocked the tracks after hearing that a crew was loading a train car with more than $1 million worth of coal to ship out. It’s been nearly a month, and miners, including Willig, are still on the tracks. 

“I just want to see us get paid what we worked for,” Willig said on the second day of the blockade. “I’m not expecting for us to get our jobs back. It’s plain and simple. Usually when you make a stand like this, you’re not going to get a callback, so I’m not expecting that.”

The Revelation and Blackjewel bankruptcies put nearly 1,700 miners out of work across Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming. The companies owe $11.8 million in back pay and benefits to miners in central Appalachia, according to Ohio Valley ReSource. But those costs pale in comparison to the more than half a billion dollars Blackjewel owes for other debts, according to its bankruptcy filing, including significant environmental and employee obligations. 

Surface mining, a type of mining that Blackjewel and other coal companies use, has degraded land and water in Appalachia, causing erosion and landslides, floods, and water contamination. Without reclamation, sites are more of an environmental and economic risk. The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) of 1977 set rules for restoring surface-mined land through a process called reclamation, which consists of rebuilding ridges destroyed by explosives, remediating soil, planting new trees and vegetation, and ensuring that land can be used for other purposes. 

As the coal industry has declined over the last decade, companies have used loopholes in SMCRA to avoid reclamation obligations, and some state agencies have not adequately enforced the law. Alpha and other companies dumped unproductive mines and responsibilities on companies that bought them after bankruptcy, postponing cleanup for months, years, or even decades. Many of the mines at stake in Blackjewel’s bankruptcy produce little coal, are lying idle, or are in various stages of reclamation.

Advocates, industry experts, and former regulators say this cycle — mine, declare bankruptcy, and sell — threatens the system designed to ensure mines are reclaimed, and that central Appalachia could see a new round of mine abandonment that could cause more environmental, economic, and health problems.

“There are parts of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky — the state with the most abandoned mine lands in the country — that were mined 50, 100, 150 years ago, and still have not been reclaimed,” said Joe Pizarchik, director of the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) under former President Barack Obama. “Those areas have still not recovered. The coal’s gone, there’s no jobs, there’s nothing.”

Barren, gray ridges mark the only remains of many mountaintops along the Kentucky and Virginia state line near where miners are protesting. Revelation holds mining permits on much of this land, which sit in various states of mining and reclamation. They’re part of the roughly 2,278 square miles of surface-mined land in central Appalachia. According to a 2015 study, only about half have been reclaimed. 

Forty-two years ago, SMCRA established a fund coal companies pay into to restore land mined before 1977 that degraded the environment or endangered the public. It also set rules for how companies restore land mined after 1977. Surface mines are shaped to the approximate contour of the mountain and revegetated with soil, grass, and often non-native shrubs like autumn olive. 

Environmental groups say rules aren’t stringent enough. “Having some of the open areas grass-seeded and stable is better than nothing, but it’s not great from an economic perspective and an environmental perspective,” said Erin Savage, central Appalachian program manager for advocacy group Appalachian Voices. 

A surface mine site near Patridge, Kentucky. Credit: Mason Adams

Aside from being eyesores, sites that aren’t properly reclaimed can be dangerous for communities around them. In 2010, a former mine in eastern Kentucky being mined without a permit eroded during a flood event and destroyed homes. A community near a large surface mine in West Virginia has been largely abandoned by residents. A Kentucky mine owned by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice that was supposed to be reclaimed in 2015 has repeatedly led to flood damage. There’s also the risk of long-term degradation of water quality — which is common throughout Appalachia — from acid mine drainage and other toxic runoff that can contaminate waterways.

The federal government regulates mine reclamation in Tennessee, but Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia have state agencies. To ensure that states can cover cleanup costs if coal operators don’t, they’re required to set aside reclamation money in bonds through third-party companies, collateral, or by self-bonding, a process that allows them to promise regulators they’ll cover expenses without setting aside money upfront. 

Each state’s system works differently: Virginia charges per-acre, plus a tax on every ton of coal that goes into a collective pool of money for the state to put toward reclamation; West Virginia requires coal companies pay between $1,000 and $5,000 per acre, plus a tax on coal production that goes into the shared pool. Kentucky overhauled its system after a 2011 federal study found that not even a third of bonds covered the cost of reclaiming land. But Kentucky regulators still tried to lower the amount coal companies must set aside for water treatment after mining.

State bonding policies have been weakened as some regulators try to accommodate the struggling coal industry. “It’s not unusual to have a state regulator who did not stay on top of things, and then try to get as much reclamation as possible or to keep the jobs going,” said former federal regulator Pizarchik. “They know they’ve got a major problem on their hands and try to get as much reclamation out of the company as they can before it finally collapse.”

Between 2012 and 2017, four of the U.S.’s largest coal companies — Alpha, Arch Coal, Patriot Coal, and Peabody Energy — filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and left nearly $5.2 billion owed for miner benefits and requirements to restore mined land, according to a study in the Stanford Law Review. The companies used several techniques to get out of paying: they rejected health care and pension obligations, passed regulatory liabilities to successor companies, and when those companies liquidated, abandoned them altogether. 

Jeff Hoops, who led Blackjewel, Revelation, and Lexington Coal, built his companies on mines passed through bankruptcies. Blackjewel’s holdings consist almost entirely of mines that have been through bankruptcy, and in 2017 Alpha paid him $316 million for Lexington Coal to take nearly 300 mines, many of which needed extensive reclamation. Hoops was pushed out as Blackjewel’s CEO shortly after it filed for bankruptcy, but he and companies his family owns are seeking payments of more than $22 million, according to one analysis.

A sign shows some of Revelation’s mine permits in Eastern Kentucky. Credit: Mason Adams

Blackjewel’s lawyer told a judge in July that there may not be another round of buyers for some mines, particularly in central Appalachia. Three mines — two in Wyoming and one in West Virginia — were sold to Contura, an Alpha subsidiary, and other companies have placed bids. But some Appalachian mines backed up by $200 million or more in reclamation bonds failed to sell, according to one of the companies insuring Blackjewel’s bonds, and some have cleanup costs that are likely to far exceed that amount. The responsibility for reclamation falls to whoever buys them — and if they can’t be sold, it could fall to state agencies and taxpayers. 

“This Revelation/Blackjewel filing is the beginning of phase 2 of the coal bankruptcy cycle, and it’s going to be devastating,” said Peter Morgan, a Sierra Club senior attorney. 

An analysis of Blackjewel’s Appalachian mining permits found the company held 211 in Kentucky, 69 in Virginia, 12 in West Virginia, and two in Tennessee — more than 14,000 acres. Savage, who conducted the analysis, said that most likely can’t generate revenue. 

“How is a company going to take these over and do any better job reclaiming them?” Savage said. “Who’s going to take over these permits, even if they were just handed to them? They’ve got all this reclamation liability. If Blackjewel couldn’t do it, why would a different company be able to do better?”

On the second day of the protest in Cumberland, State Representative Adam Bowling talked to miners between games of cornhole. He said he planned to file legislation to make sure that unpaid workers were compensated, and is concerned about the fate of Kentucky’s mines. 

“You don’t want a pit sitting there after they’re done, after they get up and leave,” he said. “Nobody wants that. We don’t want that in our communities. We enjoy coal mining. We enjoy that it’s a wage that allows our families to eat, but nobody wants them to get up and leave out of town and leave the liabilities behind.”

Some regulators are trying to address the reclamation gap. Virginia offers compliance plans to address mine violations and overdue fines. Revelation was on a compliance plan when Blackjewel declared bankruptcy. Tarah Kesterson, a spokeswoman for Virginia’s Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy, said that since August 1, the agency has moved to forfeit bonds on one Blackjewel and four Revelation mines. The agency is waiting for an update before taking any action.

Miners and others from local communities pray on the second day of a protest blocking a coal train in Cumberland, Kentucky. Credit: Mason Adams

The cleanup of abandoned mines around the U.S. from before 1977 will cost billions of dollars, but there’s no clear consensus of the actual amount. A lack of data on more recently mined land makes it harder to determine what the full costs will be. Williams-Derry said that post-1977 mine abandonment is not something “that coal country has adequately wrestled with.”

“Thinking about all this liability and environmental responsibility, we’ve just assumed there’d be some part of the industry left over that would pay for something,” Williams-Derry said. “We’re at a time right now when the whole industry is shrinking, and there may be assets that nobody wants, and there’s nobody anywhere left to pay for clean-up.”

Some advocacy groups want state regulators to take a much more aggressive role in enforcing reclamation, but the Republicans who tend to control political power in coal regions are often reluctant to do so. Some state lawmakers have tried to secure back pay for miners blocking the train in Cumberland, and to ensure companies set aside money for paychecks. But bills to retain miners’ benefits and use existing funding to reclaim abandoned mine lands with economic development plans in mind have been stalled in Congress for years. U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pennsylvania, said he plans to introduce a measure to eliminate self-bonding and to reform other bonding programs. 

“The slew of recent bankruptcies in the coal industry has put current and former coal communities at risk,” Cartwright said in a statement to Southerly. “We need to make sure we have the resources needed to clean up and restore abandoned mines.” 

As more powerful coal companies go bankrupt, the fate of thousands of acres of mines in central Appalachia — and the communities they surround — hangs in the balance.

“This is a slow-motion car wreck,” said Savage. “There’s just too much reclamation and not enough demand. Too much of the reclamation has been put off in hopes of some magical rebound that just isn’t going to happen.”

New Economic Data Show Appalachia’s Struggles Amid Coal’s Decline

100 Days in Appalachia

By Becca Schimmel

June 26, 2019

Coal cars fill a rail yard in Williamson , W.Va., Friday, Nov. 11, 2016. The hard-eyed view along the Tug Fork River in coal country is that Donald Trump has to prove he’ll help Appalachian mining like he promised. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

An annual report from the Appalachian Regional Commission shows that while Appalachia is seeing some economic improvement, the heart of the region and its coal-producing communities are still struggling. Several counties in the Ohio Valley are moving in a negative direction in this year’s report. 

The ARC report evaluates the Appalachian region using county-level data on unemployment, per capita market income, and poverty. Counties are rated on a scale with five tiers. At the low end are those “economically distressed,” or those ranking among the worst 10 percent of county economies in the country. At the high end is “attainment,” for those with thriving economies on par with the nation’s top performing places. In between are counties labeled “at risk,” “transitional” or “competitive.”

Ten counties in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia are moving in a negative direction. Those are: Rowan Co., Kentucky; Ashtabula, Athens, Coshocton, and Guernsey Counties, Ohio: and Nicholas, Pleasants, and Wirt Counties in West Virginia. 

Just four counties in the Ohio Valley are moving in a positive direction: Cumberland and Garrard Counties, Kentucky; and Hardy and Summers Counties in West Virginia. 

ARC data on economic status of Appalachian counties. Source: ARC

The ARC authors point out that many of the places moving in a negative direction or stuck in the lowest categories are those affected by the downturn in the coal industry. 

“Parts of the Appalachian region face significant economic challenges compared to the rest of the country,” ARC Federal Co-Chair Tim Thomas said in a statement. “ARC is seeking to ensure awareness of these challenges, and to inform policymakers at all levels.” 

Athens County, Ohio, is among those counties that had a negative change and is now in “distressed” status. Jack Frech is an advocate on poverty in the area who worked more than three decades in Athens County’s welfare office.  

He said that wage stagnation, coupled with the “evisceration” of social safety nets, is creating a larger class of working poor. In a “gig” economy with job growth driven by the lower-paying service sector, the nation’s low unemployment rate can be deceptive. 

“People will take any job they can get,” he said. “Which gives us the impression we are doing well, when in fact most of these new jobs do not provide a living wage. Many of them are not even lifting people above the poverty level.” 

ARC spokesperson Wendy Wasserman said the data add context on how the region is doing, and help to determine where investment is needed. 

“The reason we continue to do this is for our investments,” she said. “We do it to help us map out strategic investments in the region.” 

Wasserman said the color-coded map showing different levels of economic status looks like a bullseye of distress over central Appalachia. But it’s slowly been shrinking over time.   

The coming fiscal year will have 80 designated “distressed” counties in Appalachia, the lowest such number since 2008.

Mississippi’s children more likely to live in high poverty areas than any state in the country, report finds

Mississippi Today

By Anna Wolfe

June 17, 2019

Amy Berry, director of Little Saints Academy near downtown Jackson and a longtime early educator, could just as easily be considered a workforce specialist.

That’s true because of growing research about the massive brain development starting on Day One of a baby’s life and the correlation between quality early childhood care and a strong workforce generations later.

“Mississippi’s workforce of tomorrow is in daycare today,” Gov. Phil Bryant said in his 2019 State of the State address, noting the state’s latest emphasis on child care.

But Berry, who previously directed Jackson State University’s Mississippi Learning Institute, knows the limitations of her impact on a child living in poverty.

One of Berry’s students, a 4-year-old, has a chronic blood disease that strains his family’s sparse resources. He’s cared for by a single mom who works multiple jobs, mostly in fast food restaurants that provide neither a living wage or stable employment.

“The baby, he’s quiet,” Berry said. “He doesn’t make … eye contact all of the time. You just know that there’s some things going on there and you try to compensate with love and with, ‘I’ve got a book for you. You’re going to take this book home.’ You try things like that, but you know there are some situations there that you just can’t (solve) even though he’s with you.”

Childhood poverty is strongly correlated to a variety of negative outcomes in the course of a person’s life, including low education, increased exposure to violencehunger and health problems.

In the latest annual Annie E. Casey Foundation KIDS COUNT report released Monday, Mississippi maintained its 48th ranking from last year for overall child well-being, with 27 percent of its children living in poverty in 2017. That’s a decline from 33 percent in 2010. Before 2018, Mississippi had ranked dead last in the report every year but one dating back to 1991.

“I feel like I sound like a broken record, but I also feel like we have to keep saying the same things,” said Heather Hanna, co-director of Mississippi KIDS COUNT. “We know that poverty puts children at risk of adverse childhood experiences because the families, they’re experiencing more stress, which makes them more vulnerable to developmental issues. We know that when children are born into poverty, they actually form less brain tissue due to family stress. So it’s not always about personal choices, it’s often about the environment that we’re born into. I think in this state, if we want better choices, we need to create better environments for our children to grow up in.”

Over one-third of children in Mississippi live in families in which no parent has full-time, year-round employment, which could be exacerbated by Mississippi’s high rate of single-parent families. Mississippi’s single-parent families have grown from 35 percent in 1990 to 46 percent in 2017, the highest rate of any state.

One of the best ways to ensure the success of her student, Berry said, is to help his mom find stable employment in a living wage job.

“If she had a job that paid more and that was more secure, that she wouldn’t have to feel as if, ‘Well, I’m forever looking for something else to get a few dollars more,’” Berry said.

Not enough job openings in Mississippi afford this opportunity. Mississippi Today analyzed the 36,716 job listings that contained salary data on the Mississippi Works search engine, which underpins the governor’s workforce agenda, in early June. Just one-third were in positions that pay an average salary over $14.51 an hour — the amount a person would have to make to afford a two bedroom apartment according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

While the state’s unemployment rate reached a historic low in 2018, there were 62,700 unemployed people looking for work in Mississippi in April.

Berry said she hasn’t seen the 4-year-old student in recent weeks. His mom receives a voucher through the federal child care program, the Child Care Development Fund, to pay for his enrollment in the academy. “There’s just some situations that she’s going through now, because even with the voucher, parents must pay a portion,” Berry said.

Since 2017, Mississippi has significantly reduced its waiting list for child care assistance, one of the strongest work supports for parents, after it had ballooned to over 20,000 children. By 2019, the state said it had eliminated the wait list altogether. Still, the program is only serving a fraction of those low-income parents who are eligible, according to a 2018 Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative report, which estimated there are 60,000 young, low-income children disconnected from any publicly available early childhood program.

Historically, “the state is totally underrated, underfunded. We don’t have the interest at heart of the people that really matter,” Barry said.

“Before this, a long time ago, I was a school teacher, so I taught language arts in Jackson Public Schools. So I’ve got lots of history. And for the most part, the people that really matter, those people don’t always have our children at heart. They say that they do but their actions don’t always demonstrate it,” Berry said.

In every year but two since 1997, the Mississippi Legislature has failed to fully fund the public school funding formula that determines how much money is needed to provide an adequate education, much of which is based on the socioeconomics of the students in each district. The state’s pre-K program is only big enough to serve five percent of the state’s 4-year-olds.

But attitudes are changing in state leadership with the acknowledgement of just how important those early years are. Mississippi is in the process of changing its quality rating system for child care centers, such as Berry’s academy, and those eventually designated a “comprehensive” center will be reimbursed through the child care voucher at almost double the standard rate, said Laurie Smith, executive director of the State Early Childhood Advisory Council.

Smith said if she walked into 10 child care centers today, she estimates eight would be performing moderately, one would be exceeding expectations and one would be failing standards. But 15 years ago, Smith said, nine would have been performing poorly.

“They’re not where we need them to be,” Smith said, referring to the centers. “How we get them there is not just a grant funded project that comes and goes … There’s never been a system where every child care center can get consistent help over time and that is what we’re trying to do right now.”

Mississippi received a $10.6 million federal grant in December to help implement the structural changes, which includes establishing Early Childhood Academies and sending coaches from community colleges to train child care instructors in educational methods. The state will be eligible for another $50 million grant this fall.

“I’ve realized that there are pockets of people with the same passion, with the same interests that I have and we’ve banned together,” Berry said.

By connecting early childhood education and the workforce — Smith is also director of the State Workforce Investment Board — Mississippi is attempting to address the family as a whole through connected services.

But according to experts, a work-oriented approach to helping families isn’t likely to significantly reduce child poverty. That would require robust cash supports, such as a government child allowance.

In February, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, released a three-year, $750,000 report requested by U.S. Congress in 2015 outlining ways to cut child poverty in half within 10 years.

In “The Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty,” researchers simulated a number of policy packages, but only the most aggressive, such as significant increases to the existing Earned Income Tax Credit, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and housing voucher programs, met their goal of reducing poverty by 50 percent. Those proposals would cost at least $90 billion a year.

The most effective policies for tackling poverty are costly and do not encourage employment, the researchers found, though most governments, including in Mississippi, have maintained a work first attitude following welfare reform in the 1990s. The work-oriented proposed policies — including focusing child care vouchers to the lowest income families, raising the minimum wage and implementing workforce training programs — could cost between $9 billion and $44 billion a year, but would still require increases to the tax credit and only curb poverty by 20 to 35 percent.

The authors omitted from their research other popular anti-poverty policy proposals, such as pregnancy prevention and marriage counseling, due to lack of evidence that they work on any magnitude.

For example, mandatory work requirements, which Mississippi ties to many benefits, such as food assistance, “are at least as likely to increase as to decrease poverty.”

Smith rejected the idea that Mississippi’s approach to poverty is work-oriented, but said it is focused on training instead.

“This family-based approach we’re taking doesn’t say, ‘You have to work to do all this,’” Smith said. “It actually says, ‘We want to help you get into job training and we want to help you get your SNAP certificates and we want to help you get your Medicaid and everything you need to be successful while we’re helping your child at the same time.’”

Asked about the state’s appetite for increasing cash benefits, such as implementing its own state Earned Income Tax Credit as 29 state have done, Smith said it hasn’t arisen in policy discussions.

While the Roadmap authors note the large cost for the programs likely to work, the numbers are small compared to the estimated national annual price of child poverty — $800 billion to $1.1 trillion — as a result of increased crime, health issues and low economic mobility when those children enter adulthood.

“We can pay up front or we can pay down the road. It’s a choice,” Hanna said.