Former Mississippi Gov. William Winter was correct when he said: “The only road out of poverty runs past the schoolhouse door.” This still rings true today, since it is no secret that the poorest schools in Mississippi have the lowest graduation rates. Unfortunately, this does not stop some people from attacking the poor. They say: “Poor people are poor because they made bad choices,” or, “They aren’t trying hard enough.” While those are convenient talking points, they are simply not true.
Having visited so many areas of our state, I can certainly say that Mississippians are great. However, my travels have also confirmed that those struggling the most in our state are actually the working poor. These are people who get up every day, work tireless hours, and yet must still deal with the daily challenges of trying to make ends meet. Living like this, day to day, leads to extreme anxiety, stress and hopelessness. Most surprising is how many of our neighbors with jobs live in houses without things we take for granted: internet, cable, air conditioning, washers and dryers, dishwashers or microwaves. They sometimes go to bed hungry so their children don’t have to. These neighbors also suffer higher rates of sickness and addiction.
Appalachian author Joshua Wilkey recently wrote about his mother’s life and death, which echo life experiences of my family and those I knew and have come to know. Wilkey notes that many people think the only barriers to achievement are laziness and stupidity. That is simply not true. Again, we are talking about the tens of thousands of people in our state who are the working poor. They do work hard, yet are struggling to get by, often working more than one job and a lot more than 40 hours. Most poor people are not poor because they are inherently stupid, or lazy or irresponsible. They are poor because of a severe lack of quality education, training and real job opportunities, all of which doom them to a lifetime of perpetual hard work with little or no reward. To understand our neighbors, we must understand that many of them have broken minds, broken hearts and broken homes. They do nothing more than survive, because that is all they have ever known.
Those of us who grew up poor and were able to escape it, know that we are the exception, not the rule. We understand that mental illness, poor health and addiction are symptoms of poverty rather than causes. This is difficult to understand for someone who has never gone to bed hungry, never had their electricity or water shut off, or never been unable to afford gas to get to work. And let’s be honest: Do we really expect children who are forced to grow up in this type of chaos to be able to break the cycle of poverty on their own?
We must try to find common ground so we can address the very real problems that keep us from improving the lives of every person in Mississippi. I believe the only way to break the cycle of poverty is through quality education and training, and seeing our neighbors as people instead of stereotypes. This is not something that can be done before the next election. It is something that will take a generation. But it can happen. And it must happen. It starts with opening our eyes to the reality of our neighbor’s struggle, and having the heart and courage to do something about it. In the end, education is the single most powerful tool that can change Mississippi.