With a jobless rate below 5 percent, the Gainesville metro region is faring better than most communities across the state and nation.
But the level of poverty remains high and has begun to manifest in unique ways following the Great Recession.
“It’s always going to be with us,” Jackie Wallace, president and chief professional officer of the United Way of Hall County, said.
Underemployment and stagnant wages continue to beleaguer low-income and working-class families.
And the demographic that poverty affects has grown, Wallace said, to include more elderly individuals and young professionals.
“We were beginning to see people who had the year before been donors ... now looking for help to pay their utility bills,” Wallace said, describing the shift locally as a “sea change.”
Moreover, the prevalence of “situational poverty,” wherein a job loss or medical crisis saps savings and sends an individual or family spiraling into poverty, has increased dramatically, Wallace said.
The arresting irony of all this, said Ann Nixon, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Hall County, is that the financial toll of poverty is actually absorbed by the community at large, not just those living it.
“Our entire society suffers as our low-income families struggle to keep heads above water,” Nixon said.
For example, poverty trickles into the workplace in lost productivity and more sick days. It also limits consumer spending.
Substandard living conditions, meanwhile, can create health problems that are often paid for by taxpayers.
Poverty also is associated with higher rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, crime and incarceration.
For Nixon, perhaps the most devastating and pronounced effect of poverty is how it inhibits a child’s brain development.
For instance, studies have shown that kids growing up in poverty have high levels of cortisone released in their brains, a naturally occurring chemical that fights stress. But high levels of this are linked to a propensity for substance abuse and lower educational achievement.
And this can lead to generational poverty, where people cannot fathom another way to live because they simply “know no other way,” Wallace said.
Those in poverty across Gainesville and Hall County represent much of the backbone of the area’s economy.
They work in the poultry plants and in local mills. They construct homes and businesses.
They serve our meals and clean hotel rooms.
“Don’t kid yourselves,” Nixon said. “Poverty in Hall County is not someone else’s problem. It is your problem. It is my problem. It is our problem, individually and collectively, morally and in practicality.”
BY THE NUMBERS
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 32 percent of Gainesville’s population lived below the poverty line between 2009 and 2013, compared with just about 18 percent of the state and county’s population.
Poverty often reveals itself in poor housing conditions, something Gainesville, in particular, is no stranger to.
Moreover, the lack of affordable housing has long-term consequences for the health of the local economy, according to business, government and nonprofit leaders.
In Hall County, nearly half of all renters, including 20,000 total units, are cost-burdened, and that number tops 50 percent, including 12,000 units, in Gainesville.
Low-income families are particularly hard hit by housing costs.
For example, across Hall, 21.8 percent of renters earning less than $20,000 annually are cost-burdened, while 14.7 percent of all renters in the $20,000 to $35,000 income bracket are paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
Homeowners are also spending too much.
About 1 in 4 owner-occupied homes in Hall County, about 43,000 units, are cost-burdened and nearly 30 percent, 16,000 units, in Gainesville.
In Gainesville, the National Low Income Housing Coalition reports that a worker would have to earn $15.85 an hour to afford a two-bedroom home at the $824 fair market rate set by HUD.
A minimum wage worker in Hall, earning $7.25 an hour, would have to log 72 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom unit in the area.
Children in poverty eat less nutritious food than their peers, according to a recent review of 25 studies published between 2003 and 2014 that analyzed food spending and the dietary quality of food stamp participants.
Nearly 7,500 households in Hall collected food stamps in 2014, according to census figures.
The median income for local food stamp recipients is $23,401, and they receive an average of $190 a month in assistance. There are about 1.8 million recipients across Georgia.
Meanwhile, 1 in 5 Georgians are “food insecure,” according to the Georgia Food Bank Association. That is one of the highest totals of any state. And nearly 23,000 Hall County residents are unsure where they will find their next meal.
The Georgia Mountain Food Bank partners with 59 agencies to serve meals to more than 47,000 food insecure individuals across five North Georgia counties — Hall, Forsyth, Dawson, Lumpkin and Union.
The food bank provided more than 3.1 million meals in 2014, an increase of 400,000 over the previous year.
But about 17,500 people each month in the food bank’s service area have unmet food needs, and they sometimes have to make tough choices between eating a meal and paying the bills.
There were 7,497 food stamp recipients in Hall in 2014, with whites accounting for 52.6 percent of all recipients, African-Americans 20.4 percent and Latinos 23.9 percent.
Meanwhile, the local Meals on Wheels program delivers about 100,000 meals annually.
About 250 volunteers deliver more than 400 lunches and safety checks to clients each weekday.
THE MOST VULNERABLE
When it comes to the ability of a child raised in a poor family to move up the income ladder as he or she enters the working world, Hall County is a better place to live than 42 percent of all U.S. counties.
Hall ranks 1,053 out of 2,478 profiled in a recent study by Harvard University economists.
However, according to the study, children growing up in poor families in the Gainesville area would be better off financially if they started out in nearby White County.
Over the course of a full childhood, up to age 20 for the study’s analysis, a poor child living in White County will see an average annual income of $1,060, or about 4 percent, more as a young working adult compared with all U.S. counties profiled.
A poor child in Hall County, meanwhile, will see $330 more in average annual income as a young adult compared with those growing up in other counties.
According to the study, five major factors account for a child’s ability to move up the income ladder in their lifetime: less class and racial segregation, lower levels of income inequality, better schools, lower rates of violent crime and a larger share of two-parent households.
Living costs also play a major role in income mobility for poor children, and Gainesville has many renters.
Hall County is just one of 10 counties in the state to experience a more than 50 percent increase in the number of unsheltered homeless people between 2013 and 2015.
But that figure only hints at the problem.
Phillippa Lewis Moss, director of the Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center, said there are between 200 and 400 homeless individuals in the county at any given time.
Some are in shelters. Some live under bridges. Others camp behind retail stores and other places of business. Some have even turned storage units into makeshift apartments.
Moss said about 10 to 20 percent are considered “chronically” homeless.
The chronically homeless are costly to support. HUD estimates the annual cost is between $30,000 and $50,000 per person resulting from emergency room visits and incarceration.
Moreover, Moss said that although the percentage of chronically homeless individuals is relatively small, “national data shows that this group typically exhausts more than 50 percent of a community’s homeless resources.”
A renewed focus on homelessness in Gainesville, however, is growing as more and more residents get involved in addressing the problem.
Take Melissa and Zach Beverly, for example. The young married couple, along with their two children, has taken a singular initiative to support the area’s homeless.
“My family and I feel compelled to help the homeless community because as Christians it is a calling that God has placed on our hearts,” Melissa Beverly said. “We feel the urge to help those that have a hard time helping themselves. The Lord has blessed us, and it is our pleasure to help others. Through our nonprofit ministry (The Church, which serves the Hall County area) , we plan to serve in many different ways. We pray others can pitch in, too, by serving, donating, volunteering time and resources, or just praying for the people in need in our community.”
The small ministry is currently collecting handbags for homeless women.
Wallace said United Way officials are engaged in a fact-finding mission to get a sense of the level and impact of local poverty and new ways to address it. That includes meeting with local government and business leaders and law enforcement and health care professionals to gather data, stories and ideas.
Wallace said there is a consensus that poverty is a plague on the community.
It’s a good starting point, but something Wallace said is only that.
Poverty is such an entrenched problem that it’s difficult to know where to start.
And so she is calling on everyone to pitch in — not just businesses or churches or nonprofits or government.
“This will take a community,” she said, adding that doing so is an economic development imperative.
One proposal pushed by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute calls for a state-level earned-income tax credit for the middle-class and poor.
Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia offer their own EITCs, which are modeled on a similar federal credit.
Advocates of a state-level EITC believe it will help families afford basic necessities and begin making investments in homes and other assets that can pave the way to the middle class.
The GBPI reports that about 1.1 million Georgia households, or 28 percent of all state income tax filers, received the federal EITC in 2013.
Families making between $10,000 to $23,000 annually receive the largest EITC value, and the average federal EITC for Georgia recipients was $2,700 in 2013, the GBPI reports.
The median household income is slightly above $40,000 in Gainesville, while the statewide average is above $49,600.
Nixon said Habitat would continue to do its part by reinvesting in affordable housing.
Earlier this month, the organization dedicated the first two homes in its 21-home subdivision development, Copper Glen, located off Baker Road near Ga. 60/Candler Road.
Nixon said studies show that children living in Habitat homes show double-digit improvements in math and reading, higher high school graduation rates and higher enrollment in post-secondary education.
And more than two-thirds of Habitat children become homeowners as adults.
“Habitat for Humanity builds strength, stability and self-reliance through shelter,” Nixon said. “We help fight poverty by partnering with hard-working families to work toward home ownership and in so doing, wind up breaking the cycle of generational poverty.”
Meanwhile, Hall County officials plan to expand the Neighborhood Stabilization program, a federally funded grant initiative that allows local governments to redevelop abandoned and vacant properties to sell to low-income families.
But for local advocates, this is only a start.
“If we in Hall County want a higher functioning community, we need to invest in the paths to lower cost of housing, increase programs to engage youth after school, motivate kids to stay on a striving path and encourage attention to family health care needs before they get significant,” Nixon said. “If we are able to accomplish these lofty goals, we will have a higher functioning community.”