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Dire numbers describe poverty of state's residents, project's director says

By Melanie B. Smith · 340-2468

Alabama has some dire numbers describing its poor citizens, according to the director of a program dedicated to studying and eliminating poverty.

For instance:

  • One in five state children lives in poverty.

  • More than half of students in public schools are eligible for free or reduced lunches.

  • Almost 17 percent of people in the state live below the federal poverty line, which in 1999 was $16,895 annual income for a family of four.

    Nick Foster of the Alabama Poverty Project said the statistics may be “mind-numbing,” but they are important in getting people thinking about how to eradicate poverty in the state.

    Foster, new director of the Montevallo-based organization, spoke Thursday to Decatur Kiwanis Club.

    He said some have told him his goal is lofty or impossible.

    “They say how in the world are you going to get rid of poverty anywhere?” he said.

    Foster said he doesn’t have all the answers, but it helps to dispel myths.

    Poor people are no lazier than are middle class or wealthy people, he said, but they have fewer resources to fall back on, Foster said.

    The state’s poor aren’t “them” but “us,” he said. Most people can go back a generation or two and see that some family members lived in poverty.

    Foster said it also is important to learn the systemic issues that make it hard for people to get out of poverty.

    The state’s taxation laws are one problem. Foster said that until the legislature changed the law last year, someone who made as little as $4,600 a year had to pay state income tax. The legislature raised the taxable income level to $12,600, which Foster commended, but he said that is still well below the poverty level.

    Another built-in problem is that the Alabama Constitution earmarks 93 percent of taxes. That leaves only 7 percent for other appropriations, he said. The state loses out on federal matching grant money for such public needs as transportation.

    Foster said he talked to a waitress who served him recently and learned of her financial struggles. A single parent, she has two sons with health problems and helps support her disabled mother, also a former waitress.

    “She was working as hard as she could to meet the needs of her family,” he said.

    Foster said the waitress asked why it was so hard to get help from a church. A former pastor, he said he understands churches have to be careful in spending and knows that they do much help needy people.

    But faith communities, as well as other groups and individuals, need to get involved in education and policy changes, he said. Poor people sometimes find odds stacked against them, and get caught in a cycle they don’t see how to change, Foster said.

    “Personal responsibility is important,” he said in answer to a question how the poor could change their thinking. “But we need to work harder to help them move out.”

    Foster is the organization’s first full-time director, a position made possible by a grant from the Mary Reynoldss Babcock Foundation, he said. Board members include university professors and administrators, ministers and other anti-poverty workers.

    Clint Shelton introduced Foster.

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