Cook: Reduce poverty by 25 percent

Cook: Reduce poverty by 25 percent

July 8th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Dirtiest city.

Empty waterfront.

A slugworth of an Internet, certainly not the fastest one in the land.

A downtown to avoid.

No outdoor scene.

No aquarium.

No tourism.

No tech-entrepreneurism.

And now look at things.

"The Chattanooga Way," said Perrin Lance on Monday, at what may turn out to be the most remarkable lunch meeting of the year.

Over boxed Subway sandwiches, Lance and 20 others -- urban farmers, elders, students and nonprofit organization leaders -- talked about the power and history of the Chattanooga Way, and how they hope to steer such transformative energy toward what has become the life-and-death issue in our city.

Poverty.

And its eradication.

"A poverty-free Chattanooga," said Lance.

Wait, wait. I'll say it for you.

Can we really eliminate poverty from Chattanooga?

Is it even possible to create a poverty-free society?

These are noble questions, especially for philosophers (and columnists) with full bellies. My two cents: of course we can.

Humans can structure society any which way we want, and if a poverty-free land is our priority (other societies have deemed it theirs) then such a reorganization may be difficult, but it's not impossible.

Just because things are doesn't mean they have to be.

But you can't pay the rent with questions. We have reached the point when the asking -- is it possible? -- matters less than the acting. When the alarm rings, firemen don't sit and thoughtfully ponder the possibility of a city without house fires.

They act.

And our city is burning.

• Forty-two percent of children in Chattanooga are poor.

• Twenty-seven percent of our residents live below the poverty line.

• Chattanooga is the eighth most unhealthy city in America.

• In some of our poorest neighborhoods, 40 percent of residents have no high school diploma.

• We're facing a crisis of affordable housing, with housing projects set to be demolished and many urban renters already paying a dangerous amount of their paychecks in rent.

• Our poverty is feminized, with women heading up approximately two-thirds of our poor households.

• Black households in Hamilton County earn an average of $26,000 per year, compared to $51,000 for whites.

"For every household earning $200,000 or more, there are 20 earning less than $50,000," said Lance.

Our poverty rate is almost double the average for the rest of the country. Our number of poor children is almost twice the state average.

It is the Other Chattanooga, a trail of tears in slow motion.

"We can talk about the causes of poverty all day long," said Lance. "But I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in solutions."

Lance, executive director for Chattanooga Organized for Action, and Sparka Perry, a graduate student at Southern Adventist University, formed Poverty Free Chattanooga, a group open to anyone interested in the first step of a most glorious goal.

"Reduce poverty 25 percent by 2019," Perry said.

Monday's lunch was to begin forming a task force that would study and recommend the best anti-poverty practices across America. Conservative ideas and liberal ones. Secular and religious. Policies that change the individual and the system.

A comprehensive plan would then help unite as many influential groups as possible.

"Government entities, neighborhoods, public and private entities," Perry said.

And churches. We're known as the most Bible-minded city in the U.S., so shouldn't ending poverty be the one thing we can't quit thinking about?

"Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me," Christ says.

It's not as if this group is the first to work to reduce poverty. Many heroic men and women have been in the trenches doing the work, long before now.

But the boldness of their vision -- a poverty-free Chattanooga -- plus the dire nature of the situation -- our poverty rate is almost twice the national average -- pushes us to confront just how much we believe in The Chattanooga Way, and whether we will apply it toward social justice.

"Chattanooga can create a new model for how cities address poverty in the United States," Lance said.

If we can, shouldn't that also mean we will?

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.