December 21, 2005
For the overwhelming majority of Wilson Countians, the good times are now.
Majestic subdivisions filled with stately, six-figure homes dot a landscape that not very long ago housed little more than livestock. "Growth" has become the unofficial mantra of local leaders over the past decade as retail and residential developments flourished and new industries brought fresh opportunities for the qualified.
For others — up to nearly 8 percent of the county's population, according to leading estimates — life is more about merely making ends meet than anything else. The growth that has given Wilson County a new luster in recent years has meant little, if anything, to the nearly 7,500 local residents who walk the tightrope of financial instability.
They exist in the shadows of Wilson County's open affluence — quite literally, in the case of a homeless 20-year-old who was among those interviewed for this series of articles. Many struggle with necessities while existing on odd jobs that provide only sporadic incomes. For some, illness and disability keep self-sufficiency just beyond reach.
A study of the state of poverty in Wilson County showed the network of services and care provided to local low-income residents appears to be quite effective, keeping the county low in overall statewide poverty rankings and earning praise from an expert in the field.
Yet, it also showed one specific segment of the local population being particularly hard hit by poverty.
And, the monthslong study also revealed two glaring omissions exist on the local level in providing aid for those most in need — both of which carry potentially deadly consequences.
Population growth, health care, pose challenges
Despite a once-unthinkable burst of economic activity over the past decade which has made Wilson County's median household income the second highest in the state at $51,061, figures available from the U.S. Census Bureau show nearly 8 percent of the county's population live below the poverty line.
Census figures show 7,469 Wilson Countians — or 7.9 percent of the county's population — live below the poverty level, which is set at $9,310 for a single wage earner living alone. For a family of two the poverty level is placed at $12,490, for a family of three $15,670 and for a family of four $18,850.
In other words, the number of Wilson Countians living below the poverty level is roughly five times the population of Watertown, the county's smallest municipality.
State estimates of poverty in Wilson County mirror the federal figures with statistics compiled by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations also showing 7.9 percent of the county's population living in poverty.
And, those same figures indicate, poverty appears to be keeping pace with the county's phenomenal growth, which over the past decade has expanded the population from 67,775 to 95,366 while fueling booms in home sales and new business construction.
Over the past three years, the figures show, as Wilson County's population increased by an additional 8,000 residents, the poverty rate climbed just over 1 percent — from 6.7 percent in 1999 to today's 7.9 percent.
Perhaps even more telling, the number of county residents enrolled in the food stamp program administered by the state Department of Human Services has doubled over the past four years, rising from 1,811 in 2001 to 3,600 as of November 2005.
At the same time, the overall caseload of the local DHS office has grown by more than 3,000 over the past four years, zooming from 4,567 in 2001 to today's 7,991.
"As communities grow, you're going to have those types of growing pains," said Vanderbilt University professor James Foster, one of the area's leading authorities on poverty and its impact.
Those growing pains will likely continue, at least to a degree, according to locals in the public and private sectors, who were all quick to agree that as the county's population has increased, so has its poverty.
"It's the increase in population," local Department of Human Services Director Joanne Smith said of the growth of the food stamp program in recent years. "The more the population grows, then the more you see certain needs."
That increase is vividly reflected in those seeking aid from what is perhaps ground zero in Wilson County's war on poverty — the community Help Center, which has for years provided goods and services to those in need.
"We're a whole lot busier," Wilson County Community Help Center Director Dot Maxey said. "We're probably seeing more people than we ever have before. I know some of it is probably because we're in a new location and we're more visible, but I feel like there's also probably more to it than just that."
Maybe even more striking, Maxey said the center in recent years has seen a tremendous surge in requests from those who were previously unfamiliar to the agency's staff.
"We're seeing an awful lot of people that we've never seen in here before," she remarked.
In addition to sheer numbers, there are also strong suggestions that the ax which fell on the TennCare program that provided insurance for low-income residents also chopped away at the limited resources of those who struggle in poverty, increasing the demand on other programs.
Smith and others in the local DHS office agreed with Foster that the end of TennCare will continue to be reflected in an increase in other entitlements.
"All communities will continue to be impacted" by the end of TennCare, Foster said, indicating Wilson County will be no exception.
"That's one of the biggest issues, if the not the single biggest," he said. "Not being able to take care of exorbitant health care costs is one of the biggest reasons people fall into poverty. As long as you don't have proper health care in a community that's going to happen. You're going to be facing that kind of stuff."
An informal yet superior safety net
Help for those in need in Wilson County comes primarily from two general areas — state and federal governments and an informal, ad hoc network of groups and volunteers that seems surprisingly efficient.
As in most places across the United States outside of major urban areas, municipal and county governments — with the exception of yearly contributions to various charitable groups — provide little in actual funding for low-income residents. By contrast, 30 cents of each state tax dollar is spent on health and social services, according to the Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration.
In addition to the mushrooming food stamp program, the local DHS office has seen its overall caseload increase from 4,567 in 2001 to 7,991 as of November 2005, seen by social workers on its staff as still another reflection of the county's population growth.
Yet at the same time DHS can boast its share of victories in the war on poverty, particularly with the state's Families First program, which has been moving families off entitlement programs into full self-sufficiency at a rate of well over 200 per year since 2001.
"Wilson County has done really, really well with Families First," Smith said. "That's something we're very proud to be able to say."
Smith and local DHS staffers such as supervisors Margaret Head and Sheila Anderson are, like Maxey, something akin to social services first responders. They, as much as anyone, stare into the face of poverty each day.
And, they all said, it has no discernible characteristics. It cuts equally at both races and sexes and is just as prevalent in rural settings as in the urban areas more frequently associated with pockets of poverty. All three agreed country folks make up as much of the DHS clientele as city dwellers, even though local statistics do not differentiate between the two groups.
"It's scattered pretty evenly everywhere," Smith said. "There's as much in the rural areas as in the cities."
The state social workers were quick to praise private sector counterparts like Maxey, who joined the three in offering equally effusive praise to the businesses, churches and civic organizations which form much of Wilson County's safety net for the poor.
"Wilson County is wonderful in that regard," Smith said. "People here are remarkably generous when it comes to helping people who need it."
Maxey said, perhaps amazingly, her agency has rarely been left with needs unmet despite relying almost exclusively on private contributions to augment funding from charity stalwarts such as United Way.
"As far as being able to get what we need, we can always get it in this community," Maxey said. "It really is true that people here are excellent when it comes to helping each other."
And while relying on such an informal group of agencies and volunteers may seem risky, it's actual the preferable method for offering aid to those financially at-risk, according to Scott, who said ideally governments "should be the provider of last resort" for those mired in poverty.
"You're lucky," he said when told of the informal local anti-poverty effort and its seeming success, which in some rankings placed Wilson County next to last statewide in overall poverty rates. "What you're seeing is how important it is to have people you know be the ones who are doing the helping."
"What happens when it's someone you know?" Scott asked. "The person getting the help feels grateful … And what are they more likely to do? Help somebody else themselves later on."
That, he said, creates a near-ideal scenario for tackling poverty on a case-by-case basis.
"That's interactive. That creates a mutually supporting network … And in a way, that's really what got this country where it is today, isn't it?"
A look at who is hit hardest by poverty in Wilson County and the two areas where many feel the greatest needs remain unmet — sometimes with fatal results.
Senior Staff Writer Brooks Franklin can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 14 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.