By COLLEEN MCCARTHY
Thirty-one percent of people in Oktibbeha County live below the poverty line.
That’s compared to 13 percent nationally, and 20 percent statewide.
Various religious and political leaders from not only Oktibbeha County, but all over Mississippi, came together Thursday morning to work on the issue of poverty in the community. The meeting featured a presentation from Phil DeVol, author of “Bridges Out of Poverty” and “Getting Ahead in a Just-Getting-By World,” both of which he has translated into programs that are in use in communities around the country.
“We are vastly confused about the issue of poverty,” DeVol said. “It’s not just people in poverty who have to change, it’s all of us.”
The Bridges program, DeVol said, offers a new way of thinking about poverty and what is needed to solve it. He said throwing money at the problem doesn’t seem to be working.
“Poverty is a huge economic cost,” he said. “If spending money could fix poverty, we wouldn’t be spending $4 billion a year and still have all these issues.”
He pointed out that wealthy, middle class and impoverished people all have different ways of thinking. Trying to approach poverty issues only from a middle-class standpoint isn’t working, he said. The Bridges and Getting Ahead programs work together using that common language to solve the problems.
“It’s a language and a set of ideas that can help a community or an organization or an individual think differently about poverty issues and sustainabilty issues,” DeVol said. “I think it has enough guidance in it that people can take our ideas and do something even better with them and applying them themselves.”
These programs have been instated all over the country, but each community or organization has tailored it to meet specific needs. The programs do not offer a how-to guide to fixing poverty, but rather how to build relationships to bridge the gap.
“I’ve seen other communities be transformed by this kind of initiative. And this community can too,” DeVol said. “Every place has something they do really well, and there will be something that comes out of here that will have a unique energy to it and be a learning point for others.”
Lynn Phillips-Gaines, a local financial planner, was instrumental in bringing area leaders together to hear about the Bridges and Getting Ahead programs.
“To me, what Bridges Out of Poverty is about, is not an issue of the strong helping the weak,” Phillips-Gaines said. “It’s where we get together with people who are in poverty to understand where they’re coming from, the situations they face, and to ally with them so that we can help them make the changes if they make them and if we need to make them.”
One problem, she said, is that people don’t realize how big an issue poverty has become in Oktibbeha.
“There’s a misconception that because we have a high median income, due to the university and the hospital, that we don’t have a poverty problem,” she said. “I think the first thing is engaging people to realize it’s not a ‘their problem’ situation. If you’re a business owner, and you want to be located here and you want your business to be successful, then it’s all our problem. I think it’s about making people aware of how acute it is here.”
Both programs have been used in many aspects of public life, from local governments and agencies to private businesses, health care, schools and criminal justice systems. Phillips-Gaines hopes to first set up a Getting Ahead program for those in poverty in the community and local leaders train in the Bridges Out of Poverty program.
“The biggest issue is our poverty rate in our county. About two years ago, we were able to declare Oktibbeha County a ‘gap county.’” What that means is we had reached a poverty level above 30 percent. You get some incentives for being a gap county as far as attracting industry and economic development here. But it’s kind of a bittersweet position to be in,” District 3 Supervisor Marvell Howard said. “This is a tremendous program. I really commend Ms. Phillips for bringing this group together. I think this is an excellent program and could be a tool we could use here in the county.”
“One of the issues we have here in Starkville is a juxtaposition of a very high poverty rate, and a relatively well-to-do group. We have a lack of middle class. That can be a challenge in trying to find a way to bring opportunities here,” Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk said. “If there is something I learned today, it’s that poverty is a very complex issue. This could be one component of the solution. I think that we need to look at whatever could help us move forward in addressing the issue.”
Phillips-Gaines plans on putting together a committee to get the programs off the ground here in Oktibbeha County. To learn how to get involved, contact her office at (662) 324-2890.