What local poverty expert Christina Fulsom wishes you understood about being poor in East Texas

East Texas Human Needs Network founder Christina Fulsom at last month's East Texas Leadership Summit

When middle-class and wealthy people try and picture poverty, says Christina Fulsom, founder of the East Texas Human Needs Network, they tend to see someone holding a sign by the side of the road, asking for spare change. But that’s not what poverty—even deep poverty—typically looks like in Smith County.

“Impoverished people are taking care of our children in daycare centers,” Fulsom says. “They’re serving us in restaurants. They’re certified nursing assistants in nursing homes and hospitals. We interact with people who live in extreme poverty on a daily basis. We just don’t recognize it as such, because we don’t see the condition of the home where they go to sleep at night.”

Fulsom founded ETHNN six years ago to help people across Tyler better understand and reduce poverty. She’s widely credited with fostering the idea of “collaborative impact” in our region, encouraging nonprofits that focus on poverty to work together instead of in silos. And that begs the question: with so many local nonprofit organizations, so much new business and construction in town, and Tyler’s deeply held values of philanthropy and charity, why does poverty continue to go up in our city and county?

We asked Fulsom to explain that puzzle, unpack misperceptions about being poor in East Texas, and talk about what local employers can do to make a difference. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and condensed for length.

What’s one thing that you wish people understood better about poverty in East Texas?

Many middle-class and wealthy people think that if someone has a full-time job where they earn a minimum wage, they should be able to make ends meet. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.

For example, to support a family of four in Smith County, working forty hours a week, you would need to earn close to twenty three dollars an hour. That’s what we call a “living wage,” a calculation of what it takes to pay for the essentials of life—childcare, housing, transportation, and so on—in your community. So if you earn minimum wage [$7.25 an hour in Texas], you are actually earning fifteen or sixteen dollars an hour less than what you and your family need to live here.

In your view, what makes such misperceptions about poverty so widespread?

In the last few decades, we’ve gotten further and further away from being exposed to or having friendships with individuals who are experiencing poverty. We increasingly have what we call “geographic segregation.” People of wealth live surrounded by other wealthy people. People in the middle class live in neighborhoods with other people in the middle class. And people in poverty live in concentrated poverty.

It wasn’t always that way. It used to be much more common to have a high school principal, a teacher, and someone who worked in the cafeteria living on the same street. Not only did those who were doing better provide role models for those who were struggling to get out of poverty, it also gave those who were doing better a great understanding of the struggles—and the potential—of those who were not doing as well.

I think we tend to forget that there is tremendous potential being lost in the world of poverty, and it’s become much harder for the rest of us to see that.

As a community, Tyler prides itself on being deeply philanthropic and charitable. And yet, as we’ve reported, poverty isn’t going down in our city. Why is that? 

As much as we do need to alleviate poverty and help people get by, our focus should really be on prevention and on helping people get ahead. The problem is that it is far easier for nonprofits to secure funding to alleviate immediate problems. If someone is hungry, we all want to make sure they have food, right? Most people are more than willing to help with that.

It’s harder for a nonprofit leader to say, please help us provide a long-term case manager who is going to help alleviate someone’s hunger, but also help with their health issues, transportation, childcare, and employment skills. All of those things take relationships, and relationships take time. A five- to ten-minute visit [to a food pantry] does not allow for that to happen.

Philanthropists often want to see results in a short span of time—a couple of months, a year. The truth is that for families living in generational poverty, it may be two full generations before they no longer need support services.

When you think about a community like Tyler, what else do we need that we currently don’t have, if we want to build a city where every resident is able to have more security and stability?

Our unemployment rate is going down, and people’s lives are improving as a result of that, there’s no doubt about it. But the majority of jobs coming to our community today are service jobs. They don’t include benefits. The wages are low. Those jobs don’t necessarily pull you out of poverty. Those workers are still having to rely on programs and services to make ends meet at end of each month.

Because the majority of our hourly jobs don’t pay a living wage, we certainly need more affordable housing. We do have units around town—whether houses or apartments—that one could define as affordable, because they only require 30 percent of someone’s income. But they’re full, with waiting lists that are years long.

The places we which we live have a tremendous impact on our future. Sometimes, the only place you can afford is far from where you work, and there’s no reliable transportation. You might be surrounded by neighbors that you don’t feel you can trust, so you’re constantly in a state of trauma or fear. Many homes in this community are physically making people sick—from infestations, from mold and mildew, where every time it rains, it gets wet inside. This sounds like it’s another world, but it’s right here in Tyler, and often within a couple miles of where most of us hang out.

It would be wonderful to see more developers who are focusing on providing safe, decent, and affordable housing, and not necessarily on a profit margin of 35 percent. If their profit margin were 10 percent, then they would still be making a profit, and they would be providing a life for hundreds of families.

Are there ways in which you’d like to see businesses and employers think differently about poverty in our community? 

I think the first step would be for any business or corporation to look at how they impact the lives of their own employees. Often it’s within their own employee pools that people are impoverished. If you cannot raise wages because you’re financially strapped, what else can you do to change the lives of people who work for you?

Some companies have tremendous turnover, and they think it’s just a part of business. But if they look at the reasons for the turnover, there are probably things they could do to ameliorate or to mitigate those reasons. They could build loyalty—which in turn improves their business— while impacting the lives of hundreds of people within their company and affecting poverty overall in the community.

What would you recommend to an individual who’s reading this article and says, ‘I want to help, but I don’t know where to start?’

I always encourage everyone to begin by looking at the world through the lens of someone living in poverty. It’s not easy, but there are classes out there to help. You can participate in a poverty simulation. You can participate in a course that we teach, and that I feel so strongly about, called the Bridges out of Poverty workshop.

First and foremost, recognize that we all have biases and misunderstandings. Along with those come judgments. Take the step to understand poverty. Take the step to build relationships with people who are different from you, so you can begin to recognize the strengths of everyone. Once you’ve seen that, you will find what is in your heart and what you’re passionate about. Find a place where your strengths match a need, and get involved.

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Tasneem Raja is the Executive Editor of The Tyler Loop, a nonprofit journalism startup that explores policy, history, and demographics in Tyler, Texas. She is an award-winning journalist who has reported for NPR, The New Yorker, the Atlantic, Mother Jones, and other national outlets. A former senior editor at NPR, she launched a popular podcast exploring issues of identity and race with NPR's Code Switch team. At Mother Jones, she specialized in data visualization and led a team that built the first-ever database of mass shootings in America. She's a pioneer in the field of data-driven digital storytelling, a frequent speaker on issues of digital journalism, and a die-hard fan of alt weeklies, where she got her start as a local reporter. She lives in Tyler with her husband, her stepson, and two imperious terriers.
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