Early influences may cause struggle with poverty

ATLANTA --- On evenings when Kari Tyler-Tucker's electricity was off, she used a flashlight to spotlight her children as they took turns entertaining each other in a homegrown version of Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater.

"I didn't have money for the light bill," she recalls. "I remember one time the water was off."

Nearly 40 million Americans are in poverty. In Georgia, 11 percent of households are in poverty, nearly three times that among those headed by single women, as Ms. Tyler-Tucker was at the time.

Single women, especially those with children, are more likely to live in poverty and have a tougher time getting out than other demographic groups. Time that could be devoted to educational and career advancement to improve their financial situation is spent finding ways to feed and clothe their children. When women are able to work, experts say, they earn less than men, on average.

The longest and deepest recession in 50 years added to the numbers living below the federal poverty level, but the forces drawing single women into poverty can be powerful any time, regardless of economic conditions.

"In the sense of trying to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, it's just not realistic because of racism, sexism and several other types of barriers," said Kim Frendak, spokeswoman for the Atlanta-based Women's Resource Center on Domestic Violence. "... Where we've seen women who have made it successfully, there's been some kind of family stability, a kind of support system."

Statistically, there are common patterns in poverty. Two factors are most pronounced: single mothers and high school dropouts.

Ms. Tyler-Tucker was a single head of household. She had married a man she dated briefly in college but eventually left him because of his behavior, taking her two sons with her.

"I thought that I would do the American-dream thing. I got married and had children," she said. "Unfortunately, my husband was very abusive."

Her mother had not been married -- another frequent ingredient in poverty. As a result, Ms. Tyler-Tucker had no model for a marriage and was at a loss when her husband told her it wasn't like what she had seen on The Cosby Show, that his abuse was normal.

"I didn't really see a husband and wife, or man and woman, interacting in a household," she said. "I didn't have any image of real life. I didn't know what went on behind closed doors."

As a divorced mother with just a high school education, she didn't earn enough in retail jobs to pay the bills. Soon she sank into poverty.

STEPHENE PEARSON NEVER married the father of her five children because, she said, "we were too young, and we didn't want to take that step." He paid child support for a while, but she didn't pursue him when he stopped, preferring to be self-reliant.

When she was laid off from her job at an auto-parts plant and asthma worsened in two of her children, she, too, fell into poverty.

Ms. Pearson eventually worked her way out, and she is helping others do the same, just as Ms. Tyler-Tucker is.

Both women experienced what demographers call situational poverty, a streak of bad financial luck triggered by divorce, illness or perhaps a spouse's arrest. Inter-generational poverty describes people born into poverty who find themselves poor as adults.

Douglas Bachtel, a professor in the College of Family & Consumer Sciences at the University of Georgia, said that for both types the scenario is common. Women give birth in their 20s, with little family support to rely on for child care, housing or transportation.

These women also often end up the last hired and first fired when the economy slows, he said.

If job creation is a frequent goal of policymakers to address poverty, raising the minimum wage is another, said Simon Medcalf, an economics professor at Augusta State University. Many employers reacted to the last increase by cutting the hours of their minimum-wage employees. In more robust economic periods, employers boost prices, triggering inflation, which also negates the benefit to workers.

Poverty presents policymakers with three challenges: how to deal with those in poverty; how to get them out of it; and how to keep others from falling into it.

For those in poverty, Dr. Medcalf said, economists favor earned-income tax credits, essentially a check sent in response to a person's federal income tax return. The last option should be regular payments, what economists term transfer payments and what the public calls welfare checks.

"We can't forever keep giving them those payments for the economy to continue to be productive," he said.

Generous, long-term unemployment benefits, like those common in Europe, or welfare payments like those the United States had for years, provide no incentive for finding work, he said.

"The previous system didn't reward women who had the determination to get a job and get ahead," said Georgia Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond.

Mr. Thurmond headed Georgia's welfare-reform efforts, a job that built on his legislative efforts, before his election as labor commissioner, where he still deals with the issue.

"You really can't think about work unless you make provisions for child care," Mr. Thurmond said.

When he was in the House of Representatives he tried to pass legislation that would have provided child care. It became a reality when it was included as part of the federal welfare reform.

Ms. Pearson and Ms. Tyler-Tucker each took advantage of the child care and transportation benefits available from Georgia's welfare-reform effort that Mr. Thurmond ran, called GoodWorks. The child care could be used during work or while attending skills workshops.

In one workshop exercise designed to build self-esteem, women were handed a mirror and told to tell the reflection "I love you. You look pretty," Ms. Tyler-Tucker said.

"As women, we need someone to validate us," she said, adding that girls tend to seek validation through boyfriends, even in unhealthy relationships. "If I didn't really think I'm cute or pretty, at least you're there with me."

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Early influences may cause struggle with poverty