PADUCAH, KY -
What does poverty look like? We often think extremes when we hear the word.
It's far more common than you might think. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, from 2008-2012, 13.7% of people in Illinois were living in poverty. In Kentucky, the number was 18.6%. In Tennessee, 17.3%. In Missouri, the number was 15%.
Looking county-by-county, McCracken County, KY sat at 16.3% from 2008-2012. Jackson County, IL was much higher, at 29.5%. In Cape Girardeau County, MO, 15.9% of people were living below the poverty line. Weakley County, Tn had 20.5% of people living in that situation.
To search your area's poverty rates by state and county, click here.
That is just a snapshot of our region. So, what does poverty look like? The real faces of poverty are far more common than you might think, like Jeanette Collier and Doug Halliburton. We met the two at Paducah' Community Kitchen. They're our neighbors.
"Do you feel like sometimes people don't see you?" I asked Doug.
"Oh, yes ma'am," he responded.
The two were willing to share their stories of how they ended up below the poverty line.
"This can happen to anyone," Doug said.
Doug is a veteran, serving from 1972-1974. He's homeless today, but it wasn't always that way.
"It was my express desire to live, grow old, and die in that house," Doug told me of the home he owned in northwest Tennessee. "I'm a 60-year-old man. I worked for a house so I wouldn't be in this situation."
Doug tells me he had a 30 year mortgage that he and his wife paid off in 15 years.
"I was cleaning my roof and fell off the roof," Doug said of the accident that changed the course of his life. "Crushed two vertebrae in my back."
That injury and others led to losing his home. He now relies on friends, his van for shelter. Sometimes, the kindness of strangers.
"The last two nights I stayed at a motel," Doug said, explaining a church paid for the room.
Jeanette was living in Florida. A storm damaged her mobile home.
"I lost my home to mold. My mobile home on a couple acres of land I had down there," Jeanette explained.
She moved to Paducah to be near her son. Disabled, living with health issues that require medications, Jeanette's fixed income puts her well below the poverty line.
"It's under $700 a month," Jeanette told me. "People wonder how you can live like that. You learn how to survive."
She makes due to keep up with her low-income housing rent and medication costs, but it requires sacrifice. She keeps her thermostat low in the winter, high in the summer. She rarely turns on her lights, showering during the day, for example. The Community Kitchen is a place she can go to save on food costs.
"This is my one meal a day. Here," Jeanette said of the Community Kitchen. "I do without breakfast, I do without dinners."
Jeanette says she's grateful for what she has. There are plenty of people she's met at the Community Kitchen that are doing far worse. It especially pains her to see the working families who sometime have no choice but to use the Community Kitchen's services.
When I arrived at the Community Kitchen with my photographer Mike Spissinger and his camera, Jeanette says people took notice.
"I go, there's somebody with a camera," Jeanette explained. "We were talkin' about well, we need to leave."
Instead she's sharing her story, because she feels people need to hear it. The problem, she says, needs a voice.
THE WORKING POOR
The U.S. Department of Health and Human services defines poverty as this: A single person making less than $12,000 per year. A household of two making less than $16,000 per year. A family of three making less than $20,000 per year. To see more numbers, click here.
Sally Michelson's in charge of Paducah's Community Kitchen.
"We served over 57,000 meals, just last year," Michelson said.
She sees the problem firsthand.
"We're seeing more people come in, that dollar isn't stretching," Michelson explained. "A lot of people are falling through guidelines. Where they might need more, but they can't get any more, and so they're working two and three jobs just to be able to pay that rent."
Monique Zuber, Executive Director with the United Way Paducah-McCracken County, says perception of poverty is a huge part of the problem. A number she says shocks many, 36.4% of Paducah's children are living in poverty.
"Paducah is home to us, and it's such a wonderful community, so sometimes it's hard to look at these statistics," Zuber said. "There are lots of people who are hardworking people, who simply don't have the income because of the job they're in to even afford fair-market rent."
"There are plenty of people who are looking for a job. Looking," Michelson said. "But then, do they have transportation. Do they have the clothes?"
A task force looked into the root causes of poverty in McCracken County: substance abuse, jobs, perception of poverty, support systems and community wellness and health. The project set up a 10 year action plan to address the problem in multiple ways.
One success, the task force established a Community Health Center that provides accessible primary and preventative health services regardless of ability to pay. St. Nicholas Clinic and KYCARES partnered to open the KentuckyCare Clinic.