The Long Hard Way Out of Sticky Bottom; Amarillo College and the Battle with Poverty

Summary: Amarillo College in Texas and its varied support structures for low income students, financial and practical, testify to the complexity of escape from poverty.

It’s harder to be poor.

Many readers will acknowledge they have been charmed by a loan from a parent or provided housing when circumstances have threatened to crash calamity upon them. I cop to the same benefit of a middle class position in society, obliviously immersed in a financial milieu that can support me if need be.

By counterpoint, on theatlantic.com a report out of Amarillo College, a community college in Amarillo, Texas, administers a visceral shock with its tale of successive setbacks low income students endure in order to continue their studies, and on the other with the efforts of the college to support and maintain its students on track to graduation.

In its June print issue The Atlantic as well examines the other end of the economic spectrum in “The Birth of a New Aristocracy,” or the means by which contemporary wealthy folk maintain privilege for its children. The two articles together are an anthem on America’s rising income inequality.overcoming-2127669_1280

The gist of the student of poverty piece follows the academic career at Amarillo College of one Alicia Pruett, a 44 year old mother of five, who has returned to school for the classic purpose of giving her kids a better life.

The first blow fell when Pruett’s husband, Mike, ended up out of his work as a roofer, apparently with injuries sustained on the job for which he was unable to get disability payments, and which in turn led to some employment dead ends. Bills piled up.

Pruett was referred to the Advocacy and Resource Center (ARC) on the Amarillo College campus, the backbone of multi-faceted efforts to keep low income students in school.

Survival was patched together by funds from the ARC and a local church that helped with rent and utility bills. The college food pantry provided meals. The ARC hooked her up with Section 8 housing, but before she could move her landlord, apprised of her plan, threw her and her family out on the street. The college put her and her family up in a local motel until the Section 8 housing came clear.

In the next crisis, amid continuing trips to the college food pantry, the family’s aging Suburban was repossessed, which was their only means of transportation. Once again the college emergency fund came through with the $1200 for back payments on the vehicle and the fee for the repossession. This time, a warning, it was the last provision of money for a while.

Then Pruett was felled by severe abdominal pain and a visit to the operating room for a perforated bowel and infection. She missed work and suspended her studies while healing. Her husband’s proffered new job failed to materialize, perhaps because of a prior felony conviction. The family lived hand to mouth for a period. Gas and water were shut off.

Then a bad check Mike had written got him in hot water with the law. He was offered a plea deal that included payment to the grocery store for the food which he had obtained with the fraudulent check. In the end, the college helped with the utility bill so Mike and Alicia could come up with the cash for the grocery and make the plea deal good.

As this chapter nears a close, Mike still owed court costs and Alicia’s laptop was in the pawnshop. Deaths in her family weighed her down; she missed a deadline for a housing application and eviction loomed for the family.

This resilient woman nonetheless reports she made the right choice to pursue her education rather than work full time, but at time of publication had not reappeared in the classroom.

Usually the commentary of poverty centers on the children, and the impediments poverty places in the way of their fruitful immersion in what school can offer. The sequence of calamity visiting Ms. Pruett’s own education of course impacts her kids, through her own inevitable emotional ups and downs, the food insecurity, and the apparent instability of her husband, Mike, and his efforts handicapped by his history to contribute.

But Pruett’s own doggedness, regardless of spectrum of support Amarillo College provides, and in the face of ongoing obstacle, must also serve as a beacon for her kids in their private struggles, and gives the lie to the stereotype casual in insulated neighborhoods of the supposed welfare mother.

Meanwhile Amarillo College displays a doggedness of its own. The Amarillo College Foundation, funded privately by donations, is relatively sturdy by community college standards. Its board has bought in to the notion that even adult students cannot fully commit to studies unless the basic needs of food, transportation, housing, and the like are addressed, which is why Alicia Pruett’s story is so instructive, and why her periodic draw of financial assistance is so pivotal to her march to a degree.

Aside from financial intervention for targeted needs, Amarillo College hosts mental health counseling, a legal aid clinic, a low cost day care center, and tutoring. Academic staff is deployed to make contact with each student who are themselves a parent and whose income falls below a poverty threshold, in order to ensure those individuals are well aware of the College’s support services.

Other community colleges act on their own version of Amarillo. A rural community college in Virginia has a scholarship program in cooperation with local car dealers to provide students with a car. A college in Texas provides grocery “scholarships,” and one in Washington State works with local housing authorities to facilitate housing vouchers.

As community colleges have increasingly become peopled by the poor seeking an upwardly mobile track, including older students and people of color, the standard federal Pell Grant dedicated to low income groups now only pays for 29% of the cost of public college, which roughly covers academic costs, not living expenses, whereas in 1975 the Pell paid for 79% of the total cost.

So while consensus builds toward a conclusion that children of the poor not only need quality preschool to prosper in their academic career, but also need a variety of ongoing supports to maintain their early gains, so too is it clear that the parent of these same kids are mired in entanglements of poverty of their own. The parent’s own liberation via academic accomplishment intimately depends on strategic infusions of cash and other support structures.

As one looker on at Amarillo College puts it, “The bottom is sticky.”

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