Growing Up Poor in the South

poor_children rgbstock SatellitesW

An actual conversation I had with a friend a couple of years ago:

Friend: “Why don’t they just wipe Allendale off the map?”

Me: “That’s the reason they don’t put you in charge of FEMA.”

My friend wasn’t trying to be mean; I know what she was saying. When you begin to learn about Allendale, you tend to hear about all the negatives. Poverty, division, crime, poor education.

So the question becomes, why don’t you help people move to a place with more opportunities, and give them a chance to start over?

It’s a chivalrous enough idea, but it ignores what is important to so many. It’s placing our ideas and priorities over the hearts and desires of the people who live here. The people who grew up here. The people who love Allendale.

And the truth is, many people do move away. The county population decreased nearly 10% over 10 years, from 11,000 (in 2000) to 10,200 (in 2010). The school district enrollment is on an even faster decline (about half the size it was 12-15 years ago).

Soon after I started working in Allendale, a local mentor (one of those folks who is from and who loves this community) told me that those who have the ability to leave Allendale, leave Allendale. If they have the resources and initiative to uproot their family, they do so, especially when their children are approaching school age.

And maybe that’s a good thing for them. A recent study concludes that “children born to lower-income families in the South have far less chance of getting ahead financially than their counterparts in most parts of the United States,” even when compared to other struggling parts of the country. While they didn’t figure out why this is true, they proposed the most logical solution: people need to move.

Should They Move?

I’m torn about this.

On one hand, we want to see kids from the next generation grow up, get a good education, gain valuable experience, and return to Allendale. We want them to lead and serve solely for the benefit of others in this community, not to protect their own interests. We want them to be used by God to redeem this community.

But then again (again), some of these young folks may not need to come back. They need to grow up, get an education, and move away. For some, there is too much here that can drag people down, back into the muck of mediocrity, or worse. While some folks are strong enough to fight against the negative forces, others cannot. They need to start a new life somewhere else, and make their lives better for their own family.

But then again, when those who have the resources to move, they take their resources with them. They take their initiative, their work ethic, their leadership. And it leaves a vacuum behind.

Can They Move?

Maybe they shouldn’t move, and maybe they should. That is, if they even have the resources to move.

And this ability is more than about physical resources. I’ve noticed that a lot of it is emotional and mental. When you’re growing up, and all you’ve had are your family and friends, do you know how hard it is to turn your back on them? It feels like betrayal, for both parties.

Growing up poor in the South. . . . It may mean your family staying in poverty in the South, but among all the people you know. Or it may mean leaving the South, away from your security and your relationships.

Not an easy choice.

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**image courtesy of SatellitesW via


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3 responses to “Growing Up Poor in the South”

  1. Karen Heath Allen says :

    Such a complicated issue. Truly, there are people, both black and white with generations of history in Allendale, and as you pointed out many who can leave already have left. Although I am a recent transplant here it is already an ethical struggle for me…do you leave for better opportunities for your children or stay to help improve Allendale County? Personally I have had my eyes opened to how many people, both local and not, who are committed to giving the children of this county a better future and I feel like I will continue to want to be a part of that no matter where I live.

    • joeyespinosa says :

      Yes, very complicated. But what you (and we) have learned is that it is GOOD to feel the tension. I think if more people felt that tension/struggle, there would be more sympathy and action.

      • Karen Heath Allen says :

        Very true. For me the bottom line is, especially for those who seek to place blame or find fault somewhere, the children are innocent and just need some support to reach their potential. There are great people here.

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