For Oklahomans under the age of 18, the hardest place to grow up is in Choctaw County. The area reflects the latest U.S. Census numbers showing poverty on the increase in many rural areas across the country.
The situation is especially bad for Choctaw County’s young people, who suffer under a poverty rate of almost 40 percent, the highest in the state.
About 20 area citizens gather at the Christian Life Outreach Church in Hugo. They’ve been told a reporter is coming and are anxious to tell why their area is so poor.
“Just the family unit as a whole, I think, is where the breakdown is…There’s not a lot of work opportunity here…Teen pregnancy leads to parents sometimes not being well educated, not being taught how, you know, you have to get out here and make your own money to make it in life… Why am I going to work when I can draw this check? …The mother spends the money on drugs, and then she doesn’t care where the kid is after three o’clock.”
The situation is desperate in Choctaw County, where four live in poverty out of every 10 residents under age 18.
Other stats tell more of the story. 37-percent of children are from single-parent families. 70-percent are on Medicaid. 30 percent of the total population receives food stamps and more than 80 percent of children qualify for free or reduced school lunches.
Unemployment is right around the state average, but most of the jobs are low paying. The median household income is about 29-thousand dollars.
“I’ve been trying to make it on my own, and there’s been several times that I’ve been without food. I didn’t have a home.”
-21-year-old Ty Thomas on being young and poor in rural Southeast Oklahoma
“I just graduated three years ago,” said Ty Thomas, a 21-year-old who mentors young people at the Outreach Church. “I’ve been trying to make it on my own, and there’s been several times that I’ve been without food. I didn’t have a home. I didn’t have a lot of things, and I didn’t know how to go get it for myself. I was just out on my own. I didn’t have nobody, just my brothers and sisters at church, and that’s all I had.”
While he’s working to help other youths, he sees the cycle of poverty continuing among his former classmates.
“Most of the kids I went to school with, and I only had nine in my graduating class, I know one that went on to school,” Thomas said. “The rest of them are living with friends and parents and drinking and partying still.”
That’s another problem. Many young people in better circumstances simply leave the area. It’s part of the reason Choctaw County’s population decreased by about a percentage point over the last ten years. In that same time, the state’s population increased by almost nine-percent.
From the breakdown of the family and overreliance on state aid, to the lack of high paying local jobs, ask 20 different people why so many Choctaw County youths are impoverished and unmotivated and you’ll get at least 20 different answers. But they’ll likely all agree that efforts toward positive change must be directed at children.
That’s the philosophy of Jay Weatherford, Associate Director of the Little Dixie Community Action Agency.
“It’s a huge problem. It’s more than we have money for. It’s more than anybody’s going to have money for,” Weatherford said. “So, where do you start? Well, one of the biggest investments we’ve been making is into early childhood. We’re going to start when they’re little bitty.”
Little Dixie helps direct funding for a variety of programs to where it’s needed. It supports literacy and early education programs, and helps people get low interest loans to build houses. Weatherford says the organization stepped-up its efforts over the last five years, and are seeing signs of some slight improvements.
But for Little Dixie and similar organizations, the task can seem unachievable. The fiscal crisis hasn’t helped, with cuts to community block grants and funding for Little Dixie’s Head Start program dropping from just over 100-thousand dollars per year before the downturn, to around 78-thousand now. Still…they are trying.