It could’ve been anyone, really.
Jennifer Milam’s life changed as quickly as a weekend passed, or so it seemed when she decided to spend a few days at her cousin’s house in the summer of 2005, looking for a quick reprieve. Earlier in the year, for the first time since she married in 2000, Milam had begun to feel an overwhelming kind of pressure — the source of which she still can’t identify — and she had become depressed, at one point taking prescribed medication to combat the associated anxiety.
What she walked away from that weekend, perhaps temporarily she remembered thinking at the time, was what she once considered the ideal life. She had a nice house in Cheatham County, a daughter with her then-husband, a stepdaughter with whom she got along, a decent marriage, and a good job at a nonprofit agency.
“We were very happy,” she said.
But when she returned home on a Monday morning in June, Milam found that something had irrevocably changed — both inside her and in her family.
“One day I woke up and realized that my marriage was over,” is how she describes it now. Her husband agreed. Because Milam was mentally and emotionally unstable at the time, she said, her husband kept the kids. She took off, spending a few days with a cousin before emptying her 401(k) account to pay the daily tolls at various Nashville hotels. Her sojourn lasted several months, during which time she did not work. She hooked up with a man she called a “rebound” and became pregnant. The woman she thought she had been was gone.
“I couldn’t find myself,” she said.
With no money and a daily life like spinning plates, Milam found herself in a most unexpected place. As a woman, she was part of the 60th percentile of the city’s poor. As a white person, she was a distinct minority. As a single mother with a child younger than 18, she was among 54 percent of all female-headed households in Nashville — living below the poverty line.
Milam turned to several places for help: the Martha O’Bryan Center, the Salvation Army, the Metro Action Commission, Catholic Charities. She used food banks. She moved into the James A. Cayce Homes, a public housing project, where she spent a year building herself back up.
With a deft mix of resourcefulness and luck, she turned it around. But like most in need here, Milam had to agency-jump. It’s a common problem among Nashville’s poor population, which has grown steadily over the past decade, and especially since late 2007, when the Great Recession began. Sensing the need for preventive action, a host of local agencies — nonprofits, government entities, concerned citizens; some 500 people in total, including Milam — gathered at a September 2008 “Poverty Symposium” to begin developing a new, streamlined effort to achieve what Mayor Karl Dean has said is his overarching goal: to reduce the poverty rolls by 50 percent in 10 years.
On Monday, the groups released the “Poverty Reduction Initiative Plan,” a 75-page document that outlines in striking detail exactly what a citywide effort to reduce poverty will look like. The plan covers seven problem categories: child care, economic opportunity, food, health care, housing, neighborhood development and work force development. It also proposes a variety of solutions, from connecting the right agencies to establishing a fully funded Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Some cost money; others need only time and effort.
“I think this is the first time that we have had an organized effort that is being led both publicly and privately, and I believe that this will again start a greater effort in turning those numbers around as it relates to poverty in Nashville,” said Howard Gentry, president of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Public Benefit Foundation.
In essence, the plan is a kind of North Star by which each city and nonprofit agency should travel in the coming days, months and years to help people who might find themselves in situations like Jennifer Milam’s — difficult, but not unrecoverable.
Compassion up, money down
There is an intriguing — if somewhat predictable — effect of recessionary times on the relationship between the poor and those in a position to help them.
No one needs the U.S. Census Bureau to confirm that job losses over the past two years have led to a dramatic increase in poverty rates across the country (although the bureau has), just as most know intuitively that people already living under the poverty line — $21,834 annually for a family of four — aren’t likely to gain much ground when the economy is in a hole. The National Bureau of Economic Research has reported that historically, times of recession correspond with times of greater poverty.
But recessions also make us more sympathetic to those in dire economic circumstances. Poverty, generally speaking, is more relatable the closer it is.
“For private interests, civic groups and public-minded businesses, now is the most important time to address poverty,” Malcolm Getz, an associate professor of economics at Vanderbilt University, wrote in a recent email to The City Paper. “Recessions are hardest on the poor, and more of us are aware of the fragility of our economic circumstances. That probably increases our empathy. Of course, ability to provide financial support is compromised in a recession.”
There’s the rub. Compassion and need often rise together, but the catalyst for that is a sudden diminishing of financial resources. It’s not an impossible circumstance, but it makes things difficult.
According to the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee’s Giving Matters website, the year that elapsed between January 2008 and 2009 saw a drastic rise in calls for assistance to the United Way. Requests for utility assistance were up 63 percent; calls for food increased 49 percent; appeals for job assistance were up 45 percent.
Meanwhile, Metro government revenues were down: Departments took a 10 percent cut for the 2009-10 fiscal year. As the recession has hit families’ pocketbooks, charitable donations have dipped as well; in some cases, donors have become more focused with their money, contributing to fewer organizations.
According to those affiliated with the poverty reduction plan, now is the most appropriate time to launch such an initiative.
“The poverty issue, I think — its importance is underscored by the recession,” Mayor Dean said. “You can’t use the economy as an excuse for doing nothing.”
Dean said that there have been no specific discussions about funding the various programs, which will be implemented piecemeal. But many of the initiatives won’t require it — at least at the local level. Most of the funding for anti-poverty initiatives comes from the federal government.
Getz said a local coalition like this one could be helpful in establishing best practices for using federal funds.
“For example, the urban development funds that come to the [Metro Development and Housing Agency] could be focused more directly to aid the poor,” he said. “Of course, there are important local political interests that support the way the funds have been used. A local anti-poverty coalition could seek to influence how available funds are used in an effort to have more effect on the poor.”
Cynthia Croom, executive director of the Metro Action Commission, said the plan would make it easier to bring in federal dollars, in part because it gives a body to the various brains constantly seeking new streams of money.
“Oftentimes, when you’re applying for funding to grantors, when you’re trying to substantiate why a particular community needs the funding you’re trying to seek, if you have a plan” that offers specifics, you have a much better chance of getting more funding, she said.
Since things fell apart, life has gotten better for Jennifer Milam.
She owns a home and a dependable car. She works as a coordinator for a local nonprofit agency. Her two kids — daughters 3 and 11 years old — live with her. She carries the air of a woman who won’t soon forget how bad it can get, and how quickly.
Milam is in her second year at Nashville State Community College, where she is studying to become a social worker, a predictable outcome for someone whose life was literally saved by a network of them.
Officials are hoping to turn out more success stories like Milam’s, and in short order: The first initiatives are to begin within days.
“I’m excited,” Gentry said. “There’s always been a concern, both nationally and locally, that we talk a good talk when it comes to issues around poverty, but there’s always been this criticism that there’s a lack of action. To me, this document and the mayor accepting it and moving forward with the next steps is an example of action, and I’m really excited about it.”