James Simmons’ life has not been easy. In fact, some of it has been down right miserable.
It wasn’t always that way. There were good times. He certainly remembers those — but what is clearer in his mind is his swift downfall.
“It happened so fast. I was living the American dream and just had it snatched out from under me,” he said, seated in The Well, a homeless day shelter in downtown Brunswick.
This was a little more than a decade ago when Simmons, who is also disabled, was drawn into a downward spiral, one that would lead him to a life on the streets.
“I started drinking. It came to a point where I was drinking to live. I couldn’t live without (alcohol) ... what I was actually trying to do was drink myself to death,” he said. “But I came here from Orlando ... I was dropped off right outside here. It was a God thing.”
Once arriving in Glynn County, he was able to connect with services that set him on a new path. Simmons stopped drinking and was able to find a place to live through Gateway Behavioral Services, a local program that helps addicts and the disabled.
And while he’s in a much better place now, Simmons life is still a struggle. Like many other local homeless and the poverty stricken, his is a daily fight — mentally, physically and emotionally.
“It’s really hard to explain. You just feel ... destitute. I got to a point where I didn’t care if I lived or died,” Simmons said of living in poverty.
Sadly, he’s not alone — far from it, in fact. Poverty is rampant both nationally and right here at home. It’s something that has been made disturbingly clear in a new paper published by Don Mathews, a professor of economics at the College of Coastal Georgia. His findings illustrate that poverty is a serious issue throughout all of South Coastal Georgia, and one that has been lingering for quite some time.
“The most recent poverty experience is not unusual for the South Georgia Coast,” Mathews wrote in his report. “While Georgia’s poverty rate has exceeded the U.S. poverty rate every year since 1999, poverty rates in Brantley, Charlton, Glynn, McIntosh and Wayne (counties) have exceeded Georgia’s poverty rate every year since 1999.
“Camden’s experience has been different: since 1999, Camden’s poverty rate has been lower than Georgia’s poverty rate and, except for 2009 and 2010, below the U.S. poverty rate.”
The way that poverty is quantified — nationally and otherwise — is dependent upon income versus the number of members in a family. The more people in a household, naturally, the more income it takes to meet their needs. The qualifications also do not factor in any social services or health benefits.
According to Mathews’ report, an individual is considered impoverished when his or her annual income is at or less than $12,071. A family of three meets the poverty requirement at $18,850. For a family of four, the threshold is $24,230 and for five, $28,695. The rate continues to rise as more people are added to a household.
Nationwide in 2014 (the most recent data available), there were 46,657,000 Americans living in poverty out of a population of 315,804,000 — that’s 14.8 percent poverty rate nationally. Of those, 15,686,012 or 21.7 percent were children.
Georgia’s population was 9,823,818 with 1,802,783 people — 18.4 percent — impoverished. There are 2,456,276 children in Georgia, and of those, 646,960 are growing up with insufficient income. That’s a 26.3 percent poverty rate within the state.
Locally, however, Mathews found a bleaker picture. He studied the six county region of Glynn, Camden, McIntosh, Wayne, Charlton and Brantley counties. In Glynn County, with a population of 81,059, there were 15,666 or 19.3 percent living in poverty. Of those, 5,597 were children. That is 30 percent of all children in the county.
In McIntosh County, 14,106 people or 23.3 percent were impoverished, with 2,660 of those being under 18. Thirty-six percent of children living in McIntosh County were living at or below the poverty level as recently as 2014.
Camden was the only county in the study with a poverty rate below the nation (14.8 percent) and the state (18.4 percent). At the time the data was collected, Camden County had a population of 49,981 people. There were 5,980 or 12 percent of those living at the poverty level, of those, 2,329 were children. That is 18 percent.
Brantley has a poverty rate of 32.1 percent with 21.7 children included. Wayne County’s rate was 25.5 percent with 35 percent being impoverished children. Charlton has a 29.5 percent poverty rate, with 34 percent of its children living in poverty.
For Mathews, it was a startling revelation, especially the amount of improvised youth indicated in the findings.
“Even more troubling (than the general figures) are the child poverty rates. Of the six counties of the South Georgia Coast, only Camden has a child poverty rate (18 percent) below the U.S. child poverty rate of 21.7 percent and the Georgia child poverty rate of 26.3 percent,” Mathews wrote.
“Brantley, Charlton, Glynn, McIntosh and Wayne all have child poverty rates of at least 30 percent. Not only are child poverty rates significantly greater than poverty rates for total populations, children in poverty often receive inadequate nutrition and inadequate healthcare from which they may suffer long lasting harm.”
While the figures may be surprising to some, one person who isn’t shocked is the Rev. Wright Culpepper. As executive director of FaithWorks, a Christian-based nonprofit which oversees The Well and other services in Brunswick, he sees the need every single day. It may be families seeking assistance with utility payments, or in need of items from Sparrows Nest, the organization’s food bank, or other services. But — whatever the program — each one is always busy.
“The needs are many and constant and require the collective efforts of individuals, churches, schools and businesses in order to have the food, funds and other items that are needed,” Culpepper said.
“Currently, we see about 100 families every week through Sparrows Nest alone. Most of them are food challenged and we help them with a few days of groceries per household — once every six months per household. Others are at risk of having their utilities terminated, and if they meet certain requirements (recent illness, accident, etc.) then we can help them keep their power and water on.”
While Culpepper feels called to help those in need, he ultimately hopes to find a permanent answer to the poverty problem. Though, he admits the solution is complicated and his organization can’t find it alone.
“The only real solution is to bring new employment opportunities in our area. While those who draw a disability check will likely always be in poverty — they get about $700 per month — there are many who are capable of working,” he said. “Only by drawing a paycheck that pays a living wage will persons be able to move out of poverty. Until then, we will all need to try to help one another.”
Like Culpepper, Virginia Brown, president of the United Way of Coastal Georgia, is trying to find an obtainable answer.
In fact, Brown was the catalyst for Mathews’ study, asking him to review the figures and create a report. For her, understanding the situation was the best way to take a step toward solving this chronic issue, one that seems starkly diverse within the county itself.
“We are a community of great wealth, yet one out of five Glynn County citizens not only live in poverty, but also without hope of overcoming it. Our Glynn County poverty rate is 4.5 percent higher than the national poverty rate, but this number is dwarfed by the stunning number of children living in poverty,” she said.
“One out of three children — 8.3 percent higher than the national rate for children — faces poverty every day. The surrounding counties have child poverty rates as high as 36 percent (McIntosh County), 14.4 percent over the national poverty rate.”
That, Brown said, is worrisome for a myriad of reasons. One of the biggest being poverty, which is often cyclical and passed from one generation to the next. Oftentimes, the young people who grow up in these homes face insurmountable odds, making breaking out difficult, Brown added.
“The cycle of poverty is an unseen force that can devastate a community. The cycle of poverty ensures that hundreds of children and thousands of families never even get the opportunity to better their life. One in every three children in our community knows nothing but a life of poverty,” she said.
“Children growing up in this type of environment face a world that gives them few opportunities or reason to fight their current situation. The parents of these children have a greater chance of being unemployed. Many of the parents have not finished high school which puts them at a disadvantage to gain employment and make the money needed to properly raise a family.”
At the United Way, the staff and volunteers are focused are looking to change the future for local children. Brown said they are currently working with agencies to provide educational opportunities and career resources to those in need. They are also working to understand the cause of poverty locally and the areas hardest hit by the epidemic.
“We must understand the unique causes of poverty in our community and the effect poverty has on the lives of all our families and children. With this understanding and awareness, we can then successfully combat the cycle and create a healthier community,” Brown said.