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Census numbers suggest poverty levels growing in area

LAUREN WOOD | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Danny Hazlip eats his Thanksgiving meal Thursday afternoon at the Stewpot as other patrons leave with their boxed meals.

By Vershal Hogan, Lindsey Shelton & Justin Whitmore

NATCHEZ — For years, Danny Hazlip was a carpenter. He helped build factories, houses and apartment buildings in Natchez. Name an apartment complex in town, he said, and he likely put sweat and labor into it.

But along the way, work dried up, private homes, too.

Hazlip recently moved to Waveland to look for a job there, but finding nothing, came back to Natchez. He referred to the experience as “Rock Bottom, Mississippi.”

Hazlip has veteran’s medical and pension from the time he spent in the Navy, but it’s not a lot, and starting a couple of years ago, he had to begin trekking past two of the apartment complexes he had helped build to grab a meal at the Natchez Stewpot.

Though it didn’t start out that way, it’s now a part of his daily routine.

“How important is (the Stewpot) to me?” he said. “How important is eating?”

Hazlip said in addition to the carpentry work that used to support him, he has a couple of years worth of truck driving experience, and he’s working to upgrade his license for commercial transport.

“I want to be a little more self-sufficient and not so much of a sponge,” he said.

But until then, he needs the help.

Hazlip is part of what those working to provide help say is a growing number.

Mississippi’s poverty level has risen from approximately 20 percent to 22.6 percent — the worst in the country — since 1999 according to U.S. Census data.

The rise is on par with the trend across the country that has led to more Americans living in poverty than ever before, according to a new formula for estimating the U.S. poverty rate devised by the Census Bureau.

Natchez, Adams County and Concordia Parish are on track with those trends, area non-profit leaders said.

“It has continued to get worse over the years,” said Tiffany Mascagni, executive director of the United Way of the Greater Miss-Lou. “We absolutely see people who have never needed any type of assistance who do now.”

Adams County’s poverty rate is higher than the state’s at 30.4 percent, and Mascagni said the rise in poverty is not the only issue affecting the United Way’s ability to assist those in need.

“There have also been funding cuts,” she said. “Most agencies are not receiving the federal grants they once did. As the need continues to grow, funds continue to shrink.”

The United Way is combatting the loss of funding by adopting several new fundraisers, Mascagni said.

The increased pressure on non-profits has some organizers, like Stewpot Director Louis Gunning, worried about tomorrow.

“We have seen an increase (in the number of people needing help),” Gunning said. “And because of that increase, we are really getting in financial problems. We may have to take some steps to cut back on the number of meals we serve. We are not at that point now, but it’s definitely something we’re worried about. We’re OK right now, but from what it looks like, the future doesn’t look good.”

Gunning said a few ideas on the table are cutting back on meals the Stewpot delivers or cutting back on the meals given to people who may be close to the borderline of needing the service.

Currently, the Stewpot serves between 300 and 400 people daily.

“I think we are pretty much maxed out on what we can handle,” he said. “How much more do we need to handle? I don’t know. Over the years we haven’t turned down more than four or five people.”

Not only is the need greater in 2012 than it was a decade ago, but the winter months are the peak time for non-profits in the area, Feed the Hungry Director Linda Bonnette said.

“Our busiest time usually starts in the fall for one reason or another,” Bonnette said. “People that count on yard work or even roofers can only work in a certain kind of weather, and they can’t count on a 40-hour paycheck.”

Thankfully the greater need during the holiday season is helped by a greater sense of charity people have during the holidays, Mascagni said.

“People are more in need during this time of year, and at the same time people are definitely more apt to give,” she said.

With most of the non-profits already stretched to the limit, and the economy still in doubt, Mascagni said organizations must be ready to take on even more people.

“I’m definitely optimistic things can turn around, but the way things appear to be headed, we need to be ready for them to get worse,” she said.

Bonnette said the Miss-Lou community could provide the catalyst for expansion of the area’s non-profits.

“We want people to come in and look and see what we’re doing,” she said. “Come in and ask questions. We have nothing to hide and want to continue to grow. The Miss-Lou area is the reason we are what we do. We wouldn’t be able to do it without (the community). If people just send something in, just a little check, it helps. We appreciate every dollar we get.”

Local government leaders — who aren’t so quick to say the area’s poverty level is increasing — promise brighter days are ahead.

Natchez Mayor Butch Brown said he does not believe Natchez is poorer than in years past, but he said Natchez is still a “very poor community.”

“I definitely think we’re doing a little bit better, but we’re not there yet,” Brown said. “We’ve got plenty of work to do.

“As important as the income level data is the fact that we have programs in place that give a better quality of life in terms of recreational opportunities and job opportunities. Income is only one component of a good, strong quality of life.”

Adams County Board of Supervisors President Darryl Grennell said new industries planned for the area could help turn around poverty in Adams County.

“There are indicators that the economy could turn around in the Miss-Lou, and I would just hope that people remain optimistic,” Grennell said.

Ferriday Mayor Gene Allen said he believes his town has long suffered from poverty due to a lack of federal aid.

“I don’t think we’re poorer than we used to be, but I think because of the minority population we have been ignored by our Congressional delegation,” Allen said. “I think we need special attention from our Congressional delegation and maybe some kind of stimulus package to promote this area.”

Grennell and Brown both agree that education is the key to helping eradicate poverty.

“An educated population is a healthier population, a more trainable population, and education brings more mobility to the population,” Brown said.

Education, Grennell said, is an important tool people can use to prevent falling into poverty.

“Education is a very important tool not only for our young people but middle-aged people and also seniors, who can get skills they may not have,” he said.

Miss-Lou residents have a perfect avenue to give themselves more opportunities, Grennell said, through Copiah-Lincoln Community College and Alcorn State University.