'War on poverty' rages on in Missouri

Saturday, January 25, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:50 p.m. CST, Saturday, January 25, 2014
Lacey Wilson of St. Joseph is a single mother of four kids struggling to make ends meet. In the 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson famously declared a "war on poverty," Wilson believes poverty is still an overwhelming issue.

ST. JOSEPH — In the 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson famously declared a "war on poverty," a struggling St. Joseph mother of four believes poverty is still an overwhelming issue.

"When your bills equal more than you make in a paycheck, this is not easy," Lacey Wilson said as she sat in her nearly-unfurnished St. Joseph duplex. "It can happen to anyone. It just takes a moment to throw you into a world of stress."

The 26-year-old mother sat on her couch in her 2½-bedroom apartment next to her 18-month-old son Dominykc with her 3-year-old son Damian nearby. Cutting costs forced Wilson to lose her car because of mechanical difficulties, making transportation even more difficult.

"I walk a mile and a half to St. Joe Avenue to go to work, where up until two weeks ago, I was only scheduled about 25 hours a week," she said. "Walking about 45 minutes for a three- to four-hour shift was really exhausting."

Fifty years ago, Johnson's "war on poverty" led to many federal and state initiatives for low-income Americans, including Medicaid, Medicare, subsidized housing, Head Start, legal services, nutrition assistance, increased minimum wage and food stamps.

Five decades later, national, state and local officials believe the poverty line hasn't changed much since it was defined in 1963.

The poverty rate in 1964 was noted at 19 percent of the population. It has fluctuated between 11 percent and 15 percent ever since, with the current poverty percentage resting at a little under 16 percent.

"People know they are poor, but most of them just keep pushing on and somehow get by," said Penny Adams, AFL-CIO Community Services executive director. "They always feel like it could be worse, although for us on the outside looking in, we sometimes doubt that it could get much worse."

Statewide, 15.8 percent of Missourians were noted as living in poverty in 2011, the most recent available data. In Buchanan County that year, 17.8 percent of the population was living in poverty, according to the USDA Economic Research Service.

"The majority of 'poor' survive with the use of the free school lunch program, food stamps, food pantries, the seasonal utility assistance and a few other resources that can only be accessed once a year," Adams added. "A lot of people rely on funding resources as a way to just keep their head a little above water."

A 'national crisis'

Local social service agencies have continued to see an increased need for assistance in recent years. Dave Howery, InterServ's executive director, said the poverty issue is often forgotten, but it is a "national crisis."

Fifteen percent of Americans lived below the poverty level in 2012, according to the U.S. Census. In defining "extreme poverty," the National Poverty Center estimated that about 1.46 million U.S. households, with about 2.8 million children, were surviving on $2 or less in income per person per day in a given month in 2011.

"When you have a crisis that affects 15 to 20 percent of our country, this needs to be a conversation in civic leadership on, at least, an annual basis," Howery said. "The 'war on poverty' brought the prosperity of life into communities, but the conversation still needs to be made so a healthy community can prosper."

Wilson and her children moved into the YWCA shelter this summer. Within a few months, she was able to establish herself with a job, allowing her family to move into a duplex with a friend and her two children.

Wilson currently is $1,700 behind in rent, which includes her utilities, and she relies on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, often referred to as SNAP, for food. She is thankful she has yet to receive an eviction notice.

"I didn't make a single payment to my landlord for two months," she said. "Thankfully, he has been extremely patient with me. If he hadn't been so understanding, I don't know where we'd be.

"I've thought about the mistakes I've made that put me where I am, but you can't keep looking back. If you live in the past, you'll never get to the future."

Wilson's future seems slightly brighter as she is arranging for transportation to Cameron for management training in fast food. If she successfully completes training and moves up the management ladder, she can rely on a full-time position and larger paychecks.

"My children depend on me to keep pushing forward. If it wasn't for my kids, I really would have just given up," she said. "I can just go one day at a time. That's all I can do."

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