Poverty numbers difficult to track in Aiken

Staff photo by Maayan Schechter
Aiken resident Amanda Seabrook, 26 and son Kyren, 1 take time to relax a little Friday afternoon at Nurture Home.
Staff photo by Maayan Schechter Aiken resident Amanda Seabrook, 26 and son Kyren, 1 take time to relax a little Friday afternoon at Nurture Home.

Inside the four walls at Nurture Home, beneath the wooden crosses hung decoratively on the wall and amid plush pillows, Amanda Seabrook is one of nine children, a mother of one and now (finally) happy. Outside the walls which provide comfort and love, she is a 26-year-old single parent to 1-year-old Kyren – a woman who knows the burden of being a statistic.

She knows about struggling with her food stamp assistance since it's dropped from $367 a month to just $95 a month, welfare and family alcoholism. She understands the meaning of hard work and sacrifice.

“Yes, I'm a single parent. I come from a mother with alcohol issues and I work hard,” Seabrook said. “It's a struggle. When I first started out, it was rough. I know ground zero.”

Born in New York and raised in Aiken by her grandmother, Seabrook wouldn't say her upbringing was challenging. But after leaving college after only two years, she was at her worst – broke, bouncing from house to house and knowing too much about life on the streets.

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a “War on Poverty” during his first State of the Union address, insisting that the country work to relieve the symptoms of poverty, to cure it and more importantly, prevent it.

Post recession, the United States still struggles with finding ways to abolish poverty as a whole. Social welfare projects like federal food stamps and Medicaid have been gutted in the past few months, so has unemployment benefits.

From national trends to local, the Aiken Standard looks at how local poverty trends are doing and what are the answers, if any, to fixing the poverty problem.

Poverty as a whole, by numbers

South Carolina ranks 43rd in the nation in poverty trends with a population of about 4.77 million. Almost 18 percent of South Carolinians live below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The South is home to most of the nation's poor, with 41.1 percent of people living in poverty.

With a population of about 162,000 in the County, and almost 30,000 within City limits, the task of developing a systematic break in homelessness and poverty becomes more difficult. In Aiken County, 18.9 percent of residents are low income and living below the poverty level, and 16.4 percent of those living in City limits are living below the poverty level.

Marieanne Petersen works with the Aiken-Barnwell Community Action Commission Inc., which is an organization that assists low-income families in the area. The Community Action Commission also has programs designed to help those struggling to move forward and transition into a more self-sufficient lifestyle, or as Petersen likes to say, “teaching people how to fish.”

“We help people determine what they need to do to improve their own lives,” Petersen said. “We give people the tools to move forward with their own steam. We see people doing that, and that's the good news.”

Petersen said the unemployment rate is better than it has been in the past years since the downfall of the economy but there's still a lot of work that needs to be done.

More affordable housing, the creation of jobs and ways to help those who are transportation disadvantaged are a few factors that could help those trying to get back on their feet and improve their quality of life, Petersen said.

Seniors and blacks tricky to measure

In the most recent Pew Research study which broke down Johnson's War on Poverty initiative, looking at national trends, the population of blacks and seniors living in poverty appear to go down. In 1966, of Americans ages 65 and older, 28.5 percent were poor. By 2012, it was just 9.1 percent.

According to statistics released by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2011, the senior poverty rate in Aiken County sits at about 12.5 percent.

Aiken Area Council on Aging Executive Director Scott Murphy said it's hard to really determine if the poverty rate among seniors in Aiken County has decreased or increased over the years.

What Murphy does know is that there has been a major increase in the demand for his organization's services. What makes it difficult is that there hasn't been an increase in funding.

Some contributing factors affecting seniors are higher health care costs with limited budgets and the inability to retire due to a weakened economy, according to the Center for American Progress.

In 1966, almost 42 percent of blacks were poor – comprising nearly a third of all poor Americans. By 2012, the number fell to about 27.2 percent. About 24.9 percent of Aiken County residents are black, and 28.5 percent of Aiken city residents are black.

In Aiken, determining whether the number of those living in poverty has gone up or down, is just too hard to gauge, Seabrook said.

“I do know a lot of people in my situation and there aren't a lot of opportunities in Aiken, like jobs and homes,” Seabrook said. “I'm just blessed I was able to get into this program because a lot of people don't have that chance and just fall back.”

Rate of children and Hispanics rising

Seabrook bounces her baby on her knee to keep him from crying and reaching for things like car keys and cameras. He's changed her life, she said. But keeping up with his day-to-day expenses can be a challenge – but a worthwhile challenge.

“He's my life; he's changed my life,” Seabrook said, who becomes emotional. “I had gotten to my worst and then found out I was pregnant. I don't want him worrying about his future and feel like me when I was younger – where's my mother, where's my father? I do what I have to do to keep him OK.”

Families today are structured differently – just over one-half of poor families have women as the head of the household, and only about 40 percent are headed by married couples, according to Pew.

Charonica Pope, program director for Brothers and Sisters Aiken County, said while most of the children who visit the after-school program are from single-parent homes, whether or not that means they are financially steady is just not something she could answer. The program provides life skills workshops and tutoring sessions for about 35 to 40 children from 5- to 17-years-old. But Pope said the number is rising.

“It could have increased from word of mouth, parents talking to each other about the benefits of coming here,” Pope said. “But we can only house so many and we've got to be at capacity and we need something for these kids because programs like this give them an extra push for their future.”

Poverty among children younger than 18 began dropping in the '50s. However, since the '07-'08 financial crisis, research indicates the numbers are rising.

As the Hispanic population rises, according to Pew, more than half of the 22 million now recorded individuals living in official poverty are Hispanics. More than 4 percent of Hispanic children living in the state are poor, according to 2010 numbers.

Growing numbers and poverty prevention for Seabrook is hard to gauge. Right now, she's just focusing on her and her son and hopes her motivation to keep going sticks for the long haul.

“Everyone doesn't have that awesome job – that six-digit, seven-digit job where they can just afford all of these things,” Seabrook said. “There's a lot of things people don't take into consideration with people who are poor and there are many privileged people in Aiken or America. You can't put someone down unless you know their situation.”

Amy Banton is the county beat reporter and Maayan Schechter is the city beat reporter with Aiken Standard.

Follow them on Twitter @MaayanSchechter and @AmyLBanton.

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