An Inside Look at The Poverty You Probably Never Think About

December 23rd 2014

I teach in Clarksdale, Miss., a humble blues town, located in the crib of the Mississippi Delta in Coahoma County, with a population of 17,648 residents. Clarksdale's median income was $23,773 in 2012. Its population has declined by 14.5% since 2000. In a recent project detailing the demographic breakdown of the hardest counties to live in the country, The New York Times ranked Coahoma County 3,000 out of 3,135, based on factors such as median income, college education, unemployment, disability, life expectancy, and obesity rate.

There is nothing romantic about poverty, particularly in rural towns in the American heartland and deep South.

Cahoma County

Poverty, as Stephen Pimpare points out has many effects. It results in compromised health outcomes, higher crime rates, failing schools, and fewer job opportunities -- all of which impose one burdensome layer after another upon families. It also creates segregated neighborhoods along racial and class lines with concentrated poverty. 

Here in Clarksdale, many systemic problems persist. Coahoma County has an unemployment rate of 12.8% and limited opportunities for meaningful employment. About 17.3% of the residents have attained a college degree or higher, but as the New York Times reports, higher education does not necessarily correlate with employment, which is a uniquely rural issue, and thereby hinders social mobility.

These issues are pronounced along the clear dividing lines that separate the neighborhoods where my students live from the more affluent parts of the town. A private academy, initially created in response to a desegregation ordinance, stands in stark contrast to the public school in our municipal district. The private school is predominantly white, while our public school is predominantly black. This situation represents one of several examples of de facto segregation of the haves and have-nots. My students and their families are made to feel lonely and isolated, separated from the richness of the culture the town has to offer.

At the school where I teach, this is the reality that my 115 pre-algebra students wake up to each day. They hail from different neighborhoods of Clarksdale -- Oakhurst, the Brickyard, among other segregated neighborhoods -- and bring with them many struggles that range from financial issues, like lacking school supplies, to deeper emotional issues rooted in anger, isolation and a lack of opportunity to experience the world beyond Coahoma County. Outside of school, students are vulnerable to the world of drug dealing and gang violence.


These struggles manifest themselves in different ways in the classroom. Many kids bring a unique energy each morning, eager to meet friends and enjoy themselves. The same students, however, simultaneously exhibit a distinct weariness when it comes to the challenge of education. I like to tell my kids that, like a muscle, more practice produces more endurance, and pushing a little harder will be worth their while. This encouragement falls flat when kids come to school exhausted not only from waking up before dawn in order to arrive at school, but also from the emotional stresses of their home lives from the night before. 

In this murky blend of macro and micro challenges, I am motivated as a teacher to advocate doggedly for my students who have shown tremendous courage to keep pressing onward. Additionally, there is a network of supporters, citizens, teachers and religious organizations in Clarksdale who are eager to help heal the class tensions that simmer beneath the facade of easy pleasantries. At Yazoo Pass, a coffee shop that serves as our town’s proverbial watering hole, I have met and spoken with community members, churchgoers, Teach for America members, and leaders who run afterschool programs like Griot, which provides students with the space to develop their own self expression and personal creativity. I find that it is in learning from and working in tandem with members of the community that Clarksdale possesses a growing support system that provides structure and consistency for our kids as well as an outlet to transform adversity into something valuable.

Clarksdale has both poor whites and poor blacks. It's reminiscent of Rich Hill, Mo. another rural town with a declining population, that was the subject of a documentary released earlier this year. Rich Hill, a predominantly white town, has only 1,341 residents and has a median income of $29,800, far below the average in the state of Missouri. Its poverty rate is 27%. The statistical dynamics of this rural town mirrors Clarksdale. The documentary details the lives of three young boys who come of age under bleak, economic circumstances while beginning to find their voice - fortitude in light of very real poverty. In highlighting these narratives, the documentary hones in on the reality of living in such an unforgiving and disparate environment. This is a common story in many rural towns throughout the nation. It's a story that we should be telling more often.

Community investment helps create the necessary inertia and momentum to empower dreams, enable students to feel safe and loved in a learning environment, and allow for education to be the first step in overcoming the challenges our students live each day. All students and families should be made to feel included, invested in, and exposed to diversity and new experiences. As Bill Clinton once said, “Poverty is very overrated. But don’t denigrate [folks living in such circumstances]”. There is dignity here, and all the students who live in Clarksdale, Rich Hill, and other forgotten rural communities throughout the nation, deserve the opportunity to obtain a good education, find meaningful employment, and be successful. There is a lot of work to be done.