Polk County

SURVIVING IN THE REGION AS WORKING POOR

By LARRY C. BOWERS
Posted 10/9/19

The upper fringe of poverty has been prevalent for a length of time in Polk County, according to County Executive Robby Hatcher and Director of Schools Dr. James Jones.Economic struggles of …

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Polk County

SURVIVING IN THE REGION AS WORKING POOR

Posted

The upper fringe of poverty has been prevalent for a length of time in Polk County, according to County Executive Robby Hatcher and Director of Schools Dr. James Jones.

Economic struggles of fringe-level residents impact many families in the economically-depressed county, one of the state's poorest and among the most rural.

Hatcher, a first-term Polk County executive, and Jones, talked this week about the recently-released ALICE report conducted on communities across the nation by United Way, including Tennessee counties.

ALICE is an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. These are families living on a survival budget just over the poverty barrier. They are employed, with incoming revenue, but continue to struggle to pay the bills. They are above poverty, but often unable to provide the basic cost of living in their respective county.

Hatcher, in talking about Polk County, emphasized there is a specific need for employment opportunities in his mountainous community. He said his ALICE population is split, some in the municipal areas of Benton, Copper Basin and Ducktown, while others reside in the mountains. The poverty level, as well as those on the fringe,  are among the highest in the state.

Jones said this fringe population has a"definite impact" on the school system, although administrators continue to explore programs and services to assist these families.

Hatcher and Jones said times are difficult for many Polk County residents, saying some live in the National Forest, which covers a huge section of the county.

"Still, they're hard-working, proud, Appalachian people," Hatcher added.

There are 7,023 households in Polk County, with a median income of $42,307. The unemployment rate is over 6%, with 17% of the  households living in poverty.

Each if these statistics is significant when compared to Bradley County and state numbers. The median income in Bradley County is $48,857, while the state is $51,340. Unemployment in Bradley is 3.7% (August), and 3.4% (August) for the state. 

Polk County's median income is $6,550 less than Bradley County, and more than $9,000 when compared to the state.

Jones said a huge benefit for the school system recently has been the initiation of the state's free breakfast and lunch program. School systems must qualify for this assistance, which Polk County has in two of the past three years.

"It helps us provide food to children of these fringe families, who are struggling," he said, adding that several hundred students benefit, in all grades.

The Polk School system provides food bags for qualifying students to take home, providing nutrition while away from school.

The school system also has bus service, which assists families with transportation, and in academics provides before- and after-school tutoring.

Hatcher emphasized many of Polk County's  ALICE population, as well as those living  below the poverty level, are employed outside the county, sometimes driving lengthy distances to and from work. He pointed out there are not that many employment opportunities in his rural county.

Polk County's dire employment situation began more than 30 years ago, when the mining operations closed on the mountain in the Ducktown and Copper Basin area, in the mid-1980s.  Community leaders have since been limited in attracting  new industries or businesses.

The commercial rafting businesses along the Ocoee River in recent years have seen a significant upturn. If not for recreation, Polk's economy would have been even worse.

The county executive is quick to suggest a possible turn-around for Polk County's economic woes.

"If we could recruit two good industries, or businesses, providing 200 or more jobs, you would see a tremendous change," Hatcher said. "There would also be some spin-offs,."

Hatcher noted he has appealed to state officials to assist the county with industrial recruitment.

The ALICE study claims Polk County's poverty-level households equals the total population struggling to afford basic needs. It says families continue to move in and out of poverty over time, as individual situations improve, or worsen.

The economy has improved slightly since 2010, thanks to the rafting industry along the river, and Polk County's households have increased by around 700 since 2010.

According to the study, monthly expenses for an individual on a survival (ALICE) budget is approximately $1,550. This includes  $473 for housing, $179 for food, $322 for transportation, $124 in health care, $55 for technology, $141 for miscellaneous, and $256 for taxes.

The average hourly wage is around $9.30, and the yearly total of expenses is $18,600.

For a family of two adults, with a preschooler, the annual expenses increase to $50,364, with wages jumping to a combined $25.18. Monthly housing is $745, child care $833, food $543, transportation $644, health care $529, technology $75, miscellaneous $382, and taxes $446. Monthly expenses average $4,197.

Wages and employment vary greatly  in Polk County according to location. Firms generally pay more in areas with a higher cost of living. Large firms, of which there are few, tend to offer higher wages and more job stability. Small businesses offer more jobs, overall, especially in rural areas.

Mid-sized firms often pay better wages, but employ fewer workers.

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