Solving poverty would have biggest impact on everything

How do you solve poverty? That is ultimately the most crippling dilemma for Calhoun County, all of Mississippi and possibly the nation.
I’ve always been a believer that it is our responsibility as a society to do all we can to lift up those in poverty to give them opportunities to escape its clutches. There are other views such as it’s up to every individual to pick themselves up by their own bootstraps and the trickle down theories.

Joel McNeece

Joel McNeece

There’s plenty of debate out there as to how to if not eradicate at least minimize poverty, but there shouldn’t be any debate on it’s effects on every single one of us.
Poverty was the theme of my speech last week at the Celebrate Excel banquet in Pittsboro. Excel is the after school program in Calhoun City that serves not exclusively but mostly children living below the poverty line that face a lot of obstacles in obtaining an equal education.

Based on the latest Mississippi KIDS COUNT data, one out of every three children in Calhoun County lives in poverty. Nearly 44% of our children live in a single parent household. Twenty-two percent of the mothers don’t have a high school diploma themselves. No parent is employed at all for 13% of these children.
My wife Lisa and John Burt of Calhoun City represent Calhoun County on the CREATE board based in Tupelo that puts significant focus on educational obtainment as part of its economic development efforts in Northeast Mississippi. I represent the county on CREATE’s education committee directed by Lewis Whitfield.

Lisa, John and myself have pored through countless stacks of statistics through the years as our respective boards scour for ways to boost education levels and in turn our communities ability to achieve. The most startling stat I’ve ever run across is poverty’s impact on vocabulary.

The data shows that children living in poverty, remember that’s one in three in Calhoun County, hear only 600 words per hour in their formative preschool years. In working class families, meaning the parents at least have a high school education and are employed, those children hear over 1,200 words per hour – more than double.

In professional families, where parents are college  educated and have good jobs, those children hear nearly 2,200 words per hour.
Those differences in word counts for infants, toddlers and preschoolers impact their vocabulary skills  when it comes time to start kindergarten. Those in poverty are dramatically behind.

Imagine the strain that puts on teachers when one-third of their class comes from the 600 word level and is so far behind all the others. How do you balance that with limited resources?

Most are probably familiar with the statistics of what happens to students who fail to catch up on reading and vocabulary skills before they move beyond elementary school. If they don’t, they never catch up, eventually get frustrated with school because of their inability to learn at the same pace as others and are prone to drop out. Our prisons are filled with these former students.

Those staticstics are the foundation behind the creation of the Third Grade Reading Gate. It will be several more years before we can get an accurate reading on its effectiveness.

What the “Gate” doesn’t address at all is poverty in the home. That’s a bigger question that if we could solve it, a significant chain reaction of positive results would follow throughout all of society.

Email Joel McNeece at