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East Texas poverty rates above state average

By by Peggy Jones pljones@news-journal.com
April 23, 2012 at 11 p.m.

It is four minutes til closing time at Longview Community Ministries Monday and there is a line outside the door to the food pantry; each person waiting his turn to get a box of food basics.

Cody Rockey came to the nonprofit agency for the first time - he is representative of the 20 percent of the county's population that federal officials say live in poverty.

Rockey rode the bus to get to the food pantry. Down and out at age 24, he admits, he's seen some tough times lately.

Rockey works at a local deli. He rides his bike to work or takes the bus. And he just got a new place to live which, he explained, was the reason he needed help this month with groceries.

"Places like this are full of good people," he said. "You just have to be willing to swallow your pride and ask for help sometimes."

Like thousands of other East Texans, Rockey is a member of the working poor.

"I don't feel like I live in poverty," he said. "It's just hard times."

Hard times, indeed, for much of America.

Figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau show one in five people living in Gregg County do so in poverty – which is defined as an annual income of under $24,000 for a family of four.

The Gregg County rate is higher than the state rate which the U.S. Census Bureau sets at 16.2 percent.

A higher-than-state-average poverty rate comes as surprising news to Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt.

"Our sales tax is up. Our revenue is up and our tax base is expanding," Stoudt said. "I'm curious about how that number is determined.

"Does it paint a true picture of Gregg County citizens? I don't think so. We have indigents – but at the end of the day, I'm not sure all those numbers aren't skewed in some way we don't know about," he said.

The judge said Gregg County spends about $2 million dollars a year for indigent health care and another $1 million annually to cover legal defenses of the indigent.

"We're a fairly prosperous county compared to the other 254," Stoudt said.

East Texans fare much better than people who live along the Rio Grande where poverty rates soar. Forty percent of the people in Maverick County live in extreme poverty. The median household income there is $27,710 compared to a median household income of $43,367 in Gregg County.

You don't have to travel far outside Gregg County to encounter poorer living conditions.

The median household income in Marion County is $29,943 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About 24 percent of the people there live in poverty.

Marion, Camp and Titus all have higher poverty rates than Gregg County.

And in Morris and Wood counties, the Census Bureau reports, about one in three people under the age of 18 live in poverty.

Budget cutbacks at the state and federal level mean more people, like Rockey, will turn to charitable agencies like Longview Community Ministries for help.

Lisa Simmons is program manager at the local agency. One of her duties is to order food weekly from the East Texas Food Bank for people like Rockey, who need help once in a while.

"I order 600 food pantry boxes a week," she said. "That's 10,000 items of food we give out, each week."

But if threatened cuts to the nation's food assistance program pass in Congress, advocates for the indigent fear more and more people will be forced to turn to nonprofit agencies for help.

The U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture Committee voted last week to cut funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by $33 billion.

Donna Sharp, Executive Director of Longview Community Ministries, said the same.

"Our food pantry offers food boxes for families once a month – but it's not intended to last a month," she said. "It's five to seven days worth of food. If SNAP were to be cut it would have a great impact on Longview and the East Texas area."

The Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin – the agency responsible for the annual Kids Count Survey – issued a statement decrying threatened cuts to SNAP – formerly known as Food Stamps.

The Austin-based watch dog group estimated a cut of that magnitude would affect 300,000 Texans – many in East Texas.



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