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How Do You 'Cure' Poverty in Northeast Arkansas? Change Your Thinking.


Okay.  Pop quiz.

Do you want to be poor?  Do you want to have you or your children wake up every morning wondering where their next meal is coming from?  Is it your biggest aspiration to get locked up over and over again?

These are some of the same questions Dr. Marcella Wilson asked herself over 10 years ago while living in Detroit.  She tells her story in front of a packed audience at the E. Boone Watson Center in North Jonesboro.

She grabbed a phone book and for 2 days called up different services in Detroit, pretending to be a single mother of 3 children.  "Guess how many services I accessed in Detroit," she polled the audience.  Multiple guest in the audience mumbled "none" and "zero."  Wilson told them that they were right.  She could not get any help.

Credit Brandon Tabor, KASU News
Dr. Marcella Wilson presenting her Transition to Success Model at the E. Boone Watson Center in Jonesboro.

  Here’s something you need to know about Wilson—she was never in poverty.  At the time, she had just became the director for Matrix Human Services, a non-profit in Detroit that works to fight poverty in the city.  She was brought in to improve the organization.  She felt that in order to get an idea on how to improve the organization, she had to put herself in the shoes of their clients. 

When she discovered how hard it was to receive assistance, she began researching the issue of poverty in the U.S.  What she found was very shocking.  Wilson ran across one statistic which showed that children were born into poverty every 33 seconds in the U.S.  That equates to about 200 million children.

Wilson also discovered that 6 out of 10 adults between the ages of 25 and 75 will spend at least one year in poverty.  She said that between 2008 and 2012, the number of people in poverty in the U. S. increased by 17% while the population increased by only 3%.

“The trends that we are seeing that are so alarming is more and more people falling into poverty,” Willson said.

  Wilson spent over 25 years prior to Matrix running a large health insurance organization specializing in those with chronic mental illnesses & disabilities.  She dealt a lot with an established system for diagnosing and treating certain diseases.  As she continued her research, she discovered how living in poverty can impact a person’s health.

“You are sicker and you die younger," Wilson said.  "Living on incomes less than 200% of the federal poverty level claimed more that 400 million quality adjusted life years between 1997 and 2002.  Meaning:  Poverty had a greater impact on the health in America than tobacco & obesity combined.”

Credit Brandon Tabor, KASU News
Dr. Wilson showing a quote from Nelson Mandela on his view on poverty. It also serves as the basis for Wilson's "Transition to Success" model.

  Wilson discovered that anyone of any age or race growing up an environment fill with racism, food insecurity, lack of healthcare, high crime, unemployment, and other conditions, can negatively impact a person’s health.  She realized that environment had a greater impact on people in poverty.  It was not that they were lazy or had other character flaws.

After years of research and testing, Wilson developed a model designed to treat poverty as efficiently as a typical environmentally based condition.  She calls her model “Transition to Success”.  When she saw that her model actually changed lives for those living in poverty in Detroit, she had to share her model with other communities.

Credit Brandon Tabor, KASU News
Dr. Wilson showing a diagram of how her model, Transition to Success, works.

  Before sharing her model with other communities, Wilson said she would always research the community where she was presenting.  While researching Jonesboro, Wilson discovered that 90% of North Jonesboro households earn less than $15,000/yr while the annual income of the city is $40,000.  She called it a "real serious disparity."

According to the U.S. Census, about 25% of people in Jonesboro are in poverty.  The poverty rate in Craighead County was around 22%. In Arkansas, Phillips County had the highest poverty rate in the state with a little over 33% living in poverty.  The state of Arkansas in 2015 ranked as one of the top 10 states with the most poverty at a little over 18% according to the TalkPoverty website.

Wilson presented her model in Memphis years ago.  That was where Emma Agnew, Community Service Manager for the City of Jonesboro, first heard her presentation.  After hearing it, she was compelled to bring Wilson to Jonesboro to present her model.  Agnew said to change the poverty situation in the city, the first step was for Wilson to present her approach to the community which would lead to the next step.

Credit Brandon Tabor, KASU News
Mrs. Emma Agnew, Community Services Manager for the City of Jonesboro, (left) introducing Dr. Wilson (right).

  “The next goal now is for us to come together around this model and begin to do some work in Jonesboro where we can really begin to see people move from poverty to self-sufficiency,” Agnew said.

Tim Wooldridge is the executive director for the Crowley’s Ridge Development Council, an organization that tackles issues such as poverty covering an 8 county area, including Craighead County.  He said that it was important for his organization to adopt Wilson’s model to streamline resources and make it easier for those in poverty to receive care.

"As the congressionally mandated community action agency for this region, we at CRDC understand that this is our purpose to serve as the facilitator of this kind of program,” Wooldridge.

Wooldridge said that he wants Wilson to come back to help assist the council with implementing her model in the state. 

  More details on Wilson’s model can be found on her website, transitiontosuccess.org.

A Northeast Arkansas native from Wynne, I’ve been involved with radio for about 15 years. I got my Bachelor of Arts degree from Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, where I also served as an award-winning News Director for 2 years at KSWH-LP.