Climbing out of poverty for some women riddled with potholes

Donna Crane
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Second of three parts

Sixteen African-American mothers in Jackson, Miss. will be recipients of a financial gift of $1,000 each for personal use. Greg Kaufmann writes about the gift in Nation magazine. The project emerged when Jackson (Miss.) native Aisha Nyandoro, of the Magnolia Mothers Trust helped the African American community.

“The policy reinforced the popular narrative that people in poverty, especially black women, were poor because of laziness or a lack of gumption. It conveniently provided an ample source of cheap and monitored labor. In a 1996 report, graduate students at the University of Southern Mississippi’s School of Social Work who had tracked the Work First program concluded that the state’s punitive approach continued ‘to blame women on welfare for imagined deficiencies,’ and that policy-makers should focus on ‘increasing wages, providing quality childcare, and investing in training and education [for] low-income women.’

“Instead, Bill Clinton and the Newt Gingrich Congress followed Mississippi’s lead and passed PRWORA. That year, 68 of every 100 families with children in poverty were able to receive cash assistance, called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF); in 2016 the number was down to 23 of every 100. Because there are few federal standards for how the program should be administered, cash-assistance is now virtually nonexistent in many states.

“Mississippi, for example, provided TANF to fewer than seven of every 100 families with children in poverty in 2016, and six states helped an even lower percentage of poor families. The maximum benefit in Mississippi is $170 per month for a family of three, or less than $2 per person per day, the lowest in the country. In September, Census data revealed that 27% of children in Mississippi were in poverty in 2017, third-worst in the Nation, including more than 31% of African-American children. Even with such widespread poverty the state approved only 1.4% of TANF applicants in 2016.

“Gutting TANF has left many low-income mothers with little access to cash. While women represent half of the state’s workforce they are two-thirds of its minimum-wage workers; any breadwinner earning Mississippi’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour will likely not be able to rise out of poverty. Even if a person were able to get SNAP to help with food, or housing assistance to help make rent, or even CHIP or Medicaid, they will still be cash poor, struggling to purchase items like diapers, over-the-counter medications, hygienic products, and other household goods. Moreover, the state only serves about 10% of the children who qualify for childcare assistance, and childcare can cost as much as college tuition.

“Even if a person is able to get food stamps or housing assistance, they will still be cash poor, struggling to purchase items like diapers and over-the-counter medications.

“When Nyandoro describes the effects of being cash poor, one gets a sense of a pressure cooker with no relief. Without cash or a savings account, what would otherwise be a minor inconvenience can be crippling. Nyandoro recounted the story of a mother whose car transmission recently died, a $1,500 repair that she can’t afford. The woman is now bartering to get rides to her job, her children to extracurricular activities, and to the grocery store. She is trying to hold on until next tax season when she will receive her Earned Income Tax Credit that will supplement her low-wage earnings. Other people can be set back by something as little as a flat tire—a common occurrence in Jackson, where the streets are riddled with potholes.

“Nyandoro’s belief in the potential of low-income women was shaped by her grandmother, the civil-rights icon LC Dorsey. Dorsey grew up a sharecropper, dropped out of high school, and married and had six kids before age 25; later she earned a GED and a masters in social work from Stony Brook University in New York before returning to the Mississippi Delta where she helped start the first federally-funded rural health clinic in the United States. She led boycotts and fights for Head Start, for job opportunities for youth and adults through community action agencies, and for prison reform at the Parchman state penitentiary. “I grew up sitting at her feet,” said Nyandoro. “Everything I know about social justice and working in community I learned firsthand from her and my mother and maternal aunts—hearing them talk, listening, and going to community meetings.”
Continued next week

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