For those reading the recent News-Times series on poverty in Columbia County, a couple of themes emerge:
First, that despite all appearances, there are a significant number of people in Columbia County living on the edge; and,
That there is no cohesive, county-wide effort to improve services for these citizens.
In many respects, it is easier to deal with poverty in a county such as our larger neighbor, where there is a critical mass of need. As Columbia County's social services agencies well know, it can be difficult to serve the poor when there are too few of them to justify the establishment of an infrastructure that can provide assistance.
For example, Augusta has hospitals with emergency rooms. While it is an inefficient way of providing health care, it is readily accessible to the poor. Further, Augusta's bus service provides broad transportation to those without cars of their own; Columbia County's small, van-based transit system hardly compares.
What The News-Times series further reveals is that part of the reason poverty is so easily overlooked in Columbia County isn't just numbers; it's also because of location. A map showing the highest concentrations of residents living below the poverty line reveals the poorest citizens are packed south of Interstate 20.
It is impossible, from that graphic display, not to recognize that the Harlem-Grovetown area's long complaint as second-class citizens to wealthier Martinez-Evans has a strong basis in fact.
Though talking about poverty isn't enough, even the conversation is unpopular in some circles. There are those for whom denial is preferable to action. But they must realize that recognizing these disparities, and understanding the needs of the less-affluent citizens of generally wealthy Columbia County, is the first step toward creating a rising tide that will lift our entire community.
Here are a couple of steps we suggest taking:
The creation of a poverty task force for Columbia County, expanding on the County Collaborative. Currently, agencies that help the poor are scattered almost to the point of marginalization, just like the citizens they serve. There may be opportunities for pooling resources and skills that would help far more people without more public or private funding.
A meeting of the minds with the county's legislative delegation, along with officials from the governments of Columbia County, Harlem and Grovetown and the county's Chamber of Commerce and Development Authority to define specific strategies for economic improvement in the county's poorest areas. Specifically, these groups need to join forces to lobby for greater access to state economic development funding; much of this funding is unavailable in the areas of greatest need because the county as a whole is too wealthy to qualify.
Poverty isn't a comfortable subject, especially during the season in which so many families are racking up big bills as they pile presents under Christmas trees.
But Columbia County, as it grows into the dominant community in our region, has the opportunity to tackle this problem with common-sense, conservative solutions while the challenge is still manageable. Just talking about it is a good first step.
Poverty in Columbia County
Lack of health care access hurts many
Poverty impacts schools
Interstate divides county's rich, poor
Poverty shows in hunger
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