Originally created 11/27/98

Poverty plagues communities



KEYSVILLE, Ga. -- Less than 30 minutes by car down the road from a multimillion-dollar mining operation, few signs of prosperity greet visitors along Chinaberry Street.

Dogs share a mattress outside one puckered and rusted mobile home that sits quiet and dark. Were it not for the new satellite dish next to it, and those hooked up to nearly every other mobile home on Chinaberry, the neighborhood might be mistaken for abandoned -- vacated for nicer quarters, jobs and lives.

While Georgia's economic expansion has continued largely unabated throughout the 1990s, Keysville -- in Burke County just south of Augusta and Blythe -- hasn't seen good times in more than 60 years.

Neither have many small communities in east-central Georgia, with the obvious exception of six corporations making millions mining kaolin -- a rich, chalky mineral contained in makeup, magazines, dishes and other common products.

There are a few employers for the impoverished and unskilled -- a cat-litter manufacturer in Wrens, a couple of textile companies and golf-car battery makers in Thomson, and fast-food places scattered about. But beyond that, the job landscape is bleak. Even the kitty-litter company can't drive down Jefferson County's unemployment rate, which was 12.5 percent in September -- three times Georgia's 4.1 percent rate.

Add to the mix new higher employment standards for many low-skilled manufacturing jobs -- like a high school diploma or equivalent degree -- and an almost universal lack of public transportation.

"It's hard to match qualified workers with employers," said Melissa Brannon, a Georgia Labor Department job placement worker in Thomson.

"It's hard to track workers down. People's phone numbers and addresses change. Often they give a boyfriend or girlfriend's number, they've split up and haven't told us," Ms. Brannon said. "There's a lot of people who don't want to work, that don't want to do anything. They'll ride it (unemployment insurance) out."

Or it could be they don't have a basic understanding of how to maintain a regular job, said Mike Tabb, chairman of the Mitchell County Children and Youth Collaborative. He is seeking state money to hire case workers whose sole task would be job retention.

"Everything's in place now. The literacy (training) and the child care is there now. The problem is the type of consumers we are dealing with, the long-term generational unemployed," Mr. Tabb said. "Their parents didn't work, and their grandparents didn't work. They want to work, but they just don't know what to do.

"One thing people have got to understand is this is not something you are going to change overnight. ... I think we may have lost a couple of generations. But we have a generation now that we think we're getting somewhere with."

Tracking poverty

Many of the same problems pervade southwestern Georgia and westward into parts of Alabama and Mississippi: high school-dropout rates, bad job climates, high illegitimate birth rates, high dependency on public assistance and a shrinking population.

The poverty is easy to track.

One hundred percent of Quitman County's public school children came from families poor enough to be eligible for free school lunches during the 1996-97 school year, according to Department of Education statistics. Nearby Clay County was right behind it, with 97 percent qualifying.

Education levels range from bad to worse. For instance, at the turn of this decade, barely half of the adults in Taliaferro and Warren counties had no high school diploma. In southwest Georgia's Talbot and Stewart counties this year, only 28 percent of students passed the state graduation test's science section on the first try. Statewide, about two-thirds passed.

Keysville Mayor Emma Gresham is trying to raise the bar in her town of 400 by running adult education courses on Wednesday evenings out of a trailer that doubles as city hall. Among her successes is a mother who can now read notes her child brings home from school.

But city hall can't fight for everyone and win. A young man came into the trailer one midday to pay his water bill.

"Are you coming back to school?" she asks. The young man mumbles something unintelligible and leaves.

Cotton's legacy

Many counties with the highest of everything -- unemployment, illegitimate births and reliance on government assistance -- are old cotton-producing areas, said University of Georgia rural sociologist Doug Bachtel.

It's hard, he said, to reverse the direction those counties have been going in for decades.

"We have this middle-class orientation that they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but these folks don't have any boots," he said. "If you look at the map (of Georgia's poorest counties), these were areas heavily dependent on plantation agriculture, cotton, and had a large slave labor force and today have a large African-American population."

Robert Stafford, a poorly educated, middle-aged man, has worked on farms all his life in and around Mitchell County. But not any longer.

"You can't get a job on a farm any more," he said, blaming technology and recent immigrants from Mexico. "I guess that ain't right, but there's nothing you can do about it."

Improving conditions for Georgia's Robert Staffords isn't easy.

"The political reality is, how are you going to turn that around in one or two legislative sessions? You can't," Mr. Bachtel said. "Politicians want to create job opportunities, but when you create jobs before education, you create the cart before the horse. If you create jobs before, they will be taken by outside-the-county commuters."

One new employer in Mitchell County, Cagle-Keystone Foods, built an $80 million chicken processing plant and hired 2,500 workers, equal to an eighth of the county's population. Though Mitchell County's unemployment rate is about twice the state average, the chicken operation looks for workers in neighboring counties, and local leaders want to attract new residents.

"You start running out of people," said Alicia Shirah, executive director of the Camilla Chamber of Commerce. "That's where my job comes in."

People with no skills

As unemployment rates show, there are potential workers, but they don't have the skills needed to fill the openings.

State Rep. Sistie Hudson, former mayor of Sparta, Ga., says she believes her black farm belt district is turning the corner. Local officials there were among the first to beg government for a prison to help the area economy.

Ms. Hudson's hometown has the highest property tax millage rate in Georgia, partly because the land is so cheap.

Five miles from Interstate 20 in Hancock County, a piece of land lies ready for a pork-processing plant. It would bring 1,400 jobs to the area for unskilled, illiterate workers, she said. Now, many of those people catch rides on old school buses to an Athens, Ga., chicken-rendering plant -- a two-hour-a-day commute.

Her district, one of the poorest in the state, includes Hancock and Taliaferro counties, where more than 80 percent of children are eligible for free school lunches. Nearly a quarter of Taliaferro County residents get food stamps.

As a longtime public official, Ms. Hudson has watched business after business pass over her area. The belief among local black leaders is that corporations "don't like the racial imbalance in the school system," she said. "There's no friendly way to say it."

Three school systems in her district are more than 85 percent African-American.

No company has ever bagged plans to locate a plant in Georgia because of a majority-minority work force and school system, at least not openly, said Georgia Industry, Trade and Tourism Commissioner Randy Cardoza.

On the other hand, the Georgia Department of Industry, Trade and Tourism is not going to push a community with poor schooling, infrastructure and services if company executives are looking for better workers, he said.

"Our responsibility is the whole state. It doesn't mean trying to convince them to go in to a size community that doesn't suit them and lose the project because we didn't listen," Mr. Cardoza said.

Apparel jobs lost

A prime employer for many years in small counties, the apparel industry, has scaled back in a massive way. Georgia has lost 37,000 apparel jobs in the past decade, state Labor Department figures show.

On top of that, the region has suffered from a 40-percent cotton crop failure after last year's disappointing harvest for several commodities. Farmers' income dropped 7 percent in 1997 and another 18 percent this year, according to Georgia State University economists.

"I don't know what this thing's coming to. It's scary. I don't have a crystal ball. I don't know what I'm going to do," said John Salter, president of Albany Tractor Co., which has dealerships in five south Georgia cities. "Farmers without money, you can't sell to."

Indeed, nationally known Georgia State University economist Donald Ratajczak predicts just such a ripple moving through southwest Georgia's economy.

"We are basically saying that some of the fertilizer and farm-implement suppliers are going to go out of business," he said.

With the lack of job prospects, another common factor for cotton belt counties is a drop in the young, working-age population. Stewart County, near Albany, Ga., has seen its population cut in half since 1930. Taliaferro County's has dropped by 43 percent, and Burke County's has dropped by 38.6 percent.

Albany clothier Peter Melwani, for instance, sees a growing number of his customers only when they return from Atlanta to visit family. Two competitors have closed in the past year, leaving his clothing shop the only one downtown.

"Things are dead all of a sudden. I've been here 18 years, and I've never seen it so bad," Mr. Melwani said. "I bought my property, and now I'm stuck here. I wish I could leave."

Less material roots tug at others.

"I have friends who have moved to Atlanta, but I don't want to leave home," Stacey Taylor said one afternoon as he sat with a group of other unemployed men in a Mitchell County housing project.

While Mrs. Gresham and Keysville resident Shirley Wright have been seeking state and federal grants to reverse their town's fortunes, not everyone believes pumping government money and resources into failing, isolated communities is a good idea.

Government subsidies won't work forever, especially if the economic structure remains the same, Dr. Ratajczak said.

"If you can't change the economic climate and can't entice people there because of a ready labor pool, then eventually the solution is going to be migration out," he said. "The best you can hope for sometimes is an orderly exodus."

Lawrence Viele and Walter Jones are based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.