Eighteen percent of Columbus residents live in poverty and 19 percent lack access to sufficient, safe and nutritious foods, according to a report released Thursday by a local service agency.
Race continues to be a key poverty indicator with blacks accounting for 66 percent of the county's poor, while white residents make up 27 percent and Asians and Hispanics less than 1 percent.
The Georgia state average for residents who live in poverty is 16 percent.
The statistics are part of a triennial Comprehensive Community Assessment conducted by Enrichment Services Inc., an agency that provides a full range of social services to citizens in an eight-county region that includes Muscogee, Harris, Chattahoochee, Clay, Quitman, Randolph, Stewart and Talbot counties.
The agency released the findings Thursday at a workshop titled "Realizing the Vision -- Solving Community Issues through Collaboration." The event, held at Columbus State University, brought together representatives from area organizations to develop a regional anti-poverty strategy. The conversation was facilitated by out-of-town representatives from the Office Depot Foundation, which helps nonprofits build capacity through collaboration and innovation.
The numbers in the community assessment were gleaned from 2010 Census data, Internet research, internal documents, community partner information, focus groups and community questionnaires, according to the report.
Belva Dorsey, chief executive officer of the Enrichment Services Program, said she found many of the statistics alarming and disappointing. Of all the counties assessed, Harris County is the only one with a poverty rate below the state average. The county's rate is only 9 percent.
Clay County had the highest poverty rate in the region at 34 percent.
In Muscogee County, there are 34,559 people living in poverty. About 3,200 are under the age of five and 5,000 are 55 and older.
Black children in the county make up 71 percent of children living in poverty, compared to whites at 23 percent and Hispanics at six percent, according to the study.
The areas with the highest poverty rates are Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard at 68 percent; Cusetta Road/Benning Drive at 64 percent; Downtown at 60 percent; South Lumpkin Road/Torch at 59 percent; Lawyers Lane at 45 percent; and East Highland at 41 percent.
Sixty-two percent of students in Muscogee County public schools qualify for free and reduced lunch, and more than 1,300 were homeless during the 2009-2010 school year.
There are 1,500 homeless people in Columbus each night.
"I think what has happened in Columbus is that people might know that we have poverty, but I don't think they realize how prevalent it is," Dorsey said. "Although we have jobs here, many of our jobs don't pay a living wage."
Dorsey said she is also concerned about the high rates of single-parent households in the region, which also surpassed state averages.
According to the study, 46 percent of children in Muscogee County are now living in single-parent households. That compares to 23 percent in Harris County and a 32 percent state average.
The county now has 3,200 more single heads-of-household than it did 10 years ago. But the greatest percentage changes occurred among single male-headed-households in Harris and Quitman counties. Those percentages jumped by 60 and 61 percent respectively.
Dorsey said the problems can't be solved overnight, but the community needs to find a way to build stronger families. She said parents will have to be educated about the importance of having healthy, two-parent families, in a way that doesn't ostracize those families already headed by one parent.
"I think another thing is educating children as early as possible about why it's important to wait to have children until after you're married," Dorsey said.
She said there is a three-step formula recommended by a judge as a way to avoid poverty. The three steps are: Graduate from high school, wait until at least 21 to get married and wait until after marriage to have children.
"I think if we can begin to get that message out to young people, then we can begin to see some improvements in the single-parent household rate," she said.
Health is also a concern with Muscogee County's obesity rate now at 31 percent.
And race disparity remains a persistent menace that just won't go away.
Muscogee County accounted for 70 percent of infant deaths in the eight-county area, 70 percent of which are black and only 27 percent white. Fourteen percent of black mothers had low birth-weight infants compared to 7.5 percent of white mothers and 6.8 percent of Hispanics.