About one in four people in Macon-Bibb County are in poverty, Mercer University President Bill Underwood said Wednesday during a wide-ranging poverty summit.
In an opening speech, Underwood said Macon will “progress by leaps and bounds” in the next few years, but only if the community seriously addresses the problem.
“We have a poverty rate of about 23.5 percent in Macon-Bibb, and we’ve got to take that on,” he said.
Leaders from a wide variety of groups converged for the Macon Poverty Action Summit, where participants focused on linking up to offer better, more comprehensive help for getting out of poverty. That is a goal that speakers described as vital for Macon-Bibb County’s future and of benefit to everyone in the community.
“Poverty affects us all,” Macon-Bibb Mayor Robert Reichert said. Lack of education and opportunity lead to crime, which costs everyone more in taxes, he said. Even when struggling families hold on to their homes, poverty and the resulting hopelessness contribute to urban blight, Reichert said.
“If you’re living on $24,000 a year, the last thing you’re going to worry about is painting your house,” he said.
About 200 people attended the summit, including heads of local service agencies, business leaders, government officials and many Mercer students. The summit was co-sponsored by Mercer, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Georgia, Macon-Bibb County and United Way of Central Georgia.
Emmie Cochran-Jackson, assistant professor of sociology at Middle Georgia State College, took to heart a comment from Jay Bailey, CEO of Operation HOPE, Southeast Region. That’s a group that plans to work in Macon soon.
If Macon doesn’t address poverty, allowing the talented to continue leaving, the city won’t be here in 30 years, Bailey said.
That shows a need for events like the poverty summit, Cochran-Jackson said.
“I think it’s really right on time in terms of the need, because the students that I teach are definitely impacted by poverty,” she said.
Mike Beatty, president of Great Promise Partnerships, talked about getting companies to hire groups of high school students while the teens are still in school. Cochran-Jackson said she wants to talk to Beatty about extending that program to those in college.
“So many of my students have problems remaining focused on their education when they can’t see the relevance,” she said.
John Berry, CEO of St. Vincent de Paul Georgia, said many of the people his agency helps only need aid to get through one rough patch. Without it, that could mean a permanent plunge into poverty.
It takes job opportunities, education and access to the basics -- transportation, child care and housing -- to thoroughly address poverty, he said. A job is no help to a single mother if she can’t get there or afford child care while she’s at work, Berry said.
To that list of necessities Sister Elizabeth Greim, executive director of the Daybreak center, added affordable health care and income that’s “sustainable and adequate.”
It’s expensive to be poor, making the climb out even harder than it seems, several speakers said. Sasha Tomic, associate professor of economics at Mercer, told one group that the cost is in time as well as money: The average work commute from the depressed Macon Promise Neighborhood -- which spans Unionville and Tindall Heights -- is 107 minutes, four times the national average, he said.
Studies show the stress of tight finances and a more complicated life affect decision-making as much as a sleepless night, said Anitha Manohar, Mercer assistant professor of finance.
People worried about expenses others consider insignificant are always distracted, a factor that must be remembered in designing financial education and services.
“They have a lot of issues to deal with, and that affects the way they think,” Manohar said.
Absent that stress, poor people’s average intelligence tests the same as the wealthy, she said.
Bailey agreed that people who make money in illicit enterprises like drug dealing are only seeking success, like anyone else; and they often show amazing business talent without having any business education, he said.
Operation HOPE, which provides financial education and services, will soon start work in Macon, Bailey said. That means helping coordinate existing agencies while also hiring local residents to make financial help available in churches, grocery stores and neighborhoods, he said.
Mercer medical students Kaitlin Harper, Kristen Kettelhut and Rachael Saporito said they all learned from what other organizations are doing in Macon, but they also sought help for projects the medical school has started.
Other attendees, on hearing about medical school programs to get fifth-graders interested in science and teach young children about healthy eating, already have stepped up to offer help or contributions, they said.
“We just have to let them know,” Harper said. Those programs and others, such as free blood pressure checks and health screenings, still need funds and supplies, Kettelhut said.
After a final session in which groups discussed how their organizations can collaborate on areas of common interest, renowned former Georgia State University football coach Bill Curry told the crowd that leadership and teamwork can transcend racial and economic barriers, finding and linking caring people in every group.
“Again and again today I hear ‘We’ve got these great resources, we don’t communicate with each other,’” Curry said. “That is solvable.”