Thousands more Augustans are living in neighborhoods with extreme poverty than 10 years earlier, making Richmond County the 26th-worst area in the country for concentrated poverty, according to a report released today by the Brookings Institution.
Since 2000, 8,541 more people in Richmond County are living in neighborhoods with poverty rates of 40 percent or higher, for a total of 26,638 people in such areas.
The Augusta metro area, including parts of South Carolina, ranked 19th in the study, which used U.S. Census data from 2000 to 2009 to compare the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan regions.
Since the recession began, both the number of poor neighborhoods in Richmond County and their populations increased, showing a re-emergence of concentrated poverty. The Brookings study showed there are 4.3 percent more people living in poor neighborhoods in the Augusta metro area, and 6.4 percent more in Richmond County, than in 2000.
The increase could be because more people are moving to poorer areas, or because the existing residents are becoming poorer, according to Elizabeth Kneebone, the author of the study and a senior research associate at Brookings.
“When somebody lives in a very poor neighborhood ... it leads to a lot of other difficulties,” she said. “You not only have to deal with your own poverty, but you’re also living in a neighborhood that often has poorer-performing schools, high crime rates, fewer job networks and opportunities. All of these other challenges makes it even harder to get out of poverty.”
However, not all people living in extreme-poverty neighborhoods are necessarily poor. An “extreme-poverty neighborhood” is one in which at least 40 percent of people live below the poverty line.
Of the 26,638 living in Richmond County’s extreme-poverty neighborhoods, 12,031 (45 percent) are considered poor. In the Augusta metro region, 16,025 (43 percent) of the 36,514 residents in such neighborhoods are poor.
Locally, resources for the needy are being tapped at rates never seen before as more people struggle to pay bills and keep jobs.
At the CSRA Economic Opportunity Authority, the homeless or persistently poor aren’t the only ones asking for financial and housing help.
Executive Director Gloria Lewis said she is seeing more families who are facing foreclosure and more working people whose paychecks are not meeting all of their everyday expenses.
“A lot of these people coming here are people who never would have darkened our doors had it not been for the turn down of our economy,” Lewis said.
Her organization spent $5 million paying utility bills for 15,000 struggling families last year alone.
Lewis said her organization served 30,000 residents last year, more than double the number the agency saw in 2000, to pay their bills, pay for home repairs or look for work.
“They need our help because their houses are being foreclosed on and some of them were going to be homeless,” she said. “With the unemployment rate so high, there may be jobs available but, a lot of times, they lack the skills of the few jobs that would be available. Most times, there’s very little they can do about the situation.”
Even with the increases in the number of people living in poverty, Kneebone said it’s likely the number of poor will increase again in the next couple of years.
Her study found that the recession forced 2.2 million more Americans into poor neighborhoods since 2000.
“There are policies that the federal government and state and local policy makers could put into place to help slow or even reverse these trends,” Kneebone said. “That comes from making sure we are investing in these exceptionally poor places but also making connections between those communities and other opportunities in the region, whether it’s better schools or jobs or ability to move affordable housing in a higher poverty neighborhood.”
In the meantime, local resources are helping financially struggling people get by.
Wanda Collier began using EOA in 2008 after she lost her job with a cleaning company because a sickness left her unable to work.
The agency helped her find housing after she had been without a stable apartment for years. When her disability checks weren’t enough to cover rent, utilities, food and daily living, the agency made her one of thousands it is helping during hard times.
“Now I don’t have to worry about a place to lay my head or air or heat or anything,” Collier said. “EOA has helped me more than financially. It’s given me self-worth and value.”
Collier said she does not want to have to depend on the assistance long term, but when times were hard, she was happy to get help.
“They say money shouldn’t matter,” Collier said. “It’s sad, but money is a lot. Can you just imagine life and getting by if you didn’t have any? I know what that’s like.”