Linda Keys, far left, making a difference in poverty stricken children in Mississippi. Photo by Lacie Bartlett.
A new car, a new phone, or money are the normal things an 18-year-old boy asks for before leaving for college. But one request stood out.
Linda Keys, founder of MS COATS4KIDZ, said one boy asked for a coat.
According to the Children’s Defense Fund, U.S. Census Bureau statistics for 2017, the last year measured, reveal that child poverty varied widely from state to state in 2017, ranging from 10.3 percent in New Hampshire to 28 percent in Louisiana.
In 16 states and the District of Columbia, more than 1 in 5 children were poor. Poverty is defined as an annual income below $25,283 for the average family of four—$2,107 a month, $486 a week or $69 a day.
Mississippi is listed third among states with the highest child poverty rates. Louisiana and New Mexico have the highest rates, and Mississippi is followed by West Virginia.
“Some places in Mississippi have poverty rates as high as 67 percent,” Keys said. “Something people do not think about when it comes to poverty are the clothes these children wear. The cold weather affects their cognitive abilities . . . The younger a child is, the more their brains and bodies are affected by cold weather.”
Keys said children who live in poverty can be found everywhere in Mississippi. “I drove from county to county to see how extensive poverty is in Mississippi,” she said, “and I got to see firsthand just how bad it is. I did not know where I was going or what I was looking for. I just drove.
“It gets to a point where the highways transition into a two-lane road, and that turns into gravel, then the gravel turns into a long dirt road with absolutely no cell phone service.
“You would have thought I was in a third world country with some of the things I experienced in Mississippi,” she said. “I went so far, I found families that live without running water and electricity, because they could not afford it.”
Keys first noticed child poverty in Mississippi when she saw children who were not wearing coats in winter. Instead, they were going to school in shortsleeve T-shirts or light jackets.
“I talked to teachers, principals, and administrators about the kids in their school that showed signs of poverty, and you would not believe what happened,” she said. “Every single educator I talked to gave me the same, identical story. There are so many kids that do not have the proper clothes to wear in the wintertime. Absentee rates skyrocket on days that it is extremely cold. This problem could be fixed with a simple coat.”
Oxford High School teacher Kelsie Beebe said she can always tell when children are living in poor conditions.
“It affects high school-aged children so much,” she said. “Some kids wear the same clothes multiple times a week. Others might not be able to afford school supplies, which greatly affects their education. Others might have a really nice pair of tennis shoes, but you can always tell their parents spent all of their money on them.”
Beebe said it also affects their lives socially.
“They believe that the lifestyle they live is their only path because that is how they have been raised,” she said. “Oftentimes, this leads kids to act out or simply not try. They think they are destined to be just like their parents.”
According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, children growing up in low-income families face many challenges that children from more advantaged families do not. They report that children who grow up in poor families are much more likely to be poor in adulthood.
Keys has asked those she encounters to help break the cycle of poverty with education. “Educated people are more likely to get higher income jobs,” she said. “As a teacher, I see the trend of poverty. Teachers like myself and others notice the trend and work hard to teach these kids that they do not have to live like that.
“It might be harder for them to become educated, but there are always programs and scholarships available for low income families. We want to see children succeed, and it breaks my heart when they fall into the generational cycle of poverty.”
Keys said there are many reasons for poverty. “When you really look into it, Mississippi has high dropout rates, high incarceration rates, low income rates, and a lot of uneducated parents and grandparents trying to raise children on government assistance alone,” she said.
Keys recalls talking to the young man who asked for a coat for graduation. “I recently talked to him and asked him if he needed a new coat,” she said. “His response was, ‘No ma’am, the one you gave me still fits perfectly. I really appreciate that though.’” It brought me to tears that he was so thankful for that coat.”