Editor's note: This is the eighth article in a 10-part series.

MOBERLY — Lines of people form three days a week along a chipped downtown sidewalk, waiting to squeeze into the crowded lobby at 111 N. 5th St.

A small poster-board sign, reading “Christos Center,” sits in the front window of the otherwise indistinct building.

That’s where R.L. Bennett, a disabled veteran, sat in the food pantry’s waiting room. He wore a U.S. Navy baseball cap and an oversized orange T-shirt peppered with holes — one of his few “clean” shirts. He eventually received several brown paper bags filled with a few weeks worth of groceries. Bennett has participated in this routine every month for the past nine years to get by.

While others in the lobby were hesitant to call themselves impoverished, Bennett, a disabled veteran, has accepted it after 15 years of living in poverty.

“When you get into a situation, under the poverty level, there’s not really much you can do,” he said.

Bennett is one of about 51,000 impoverished people in an eight-county region of mid-Missouri, people who may struggle to pay for medication, rent, food or bills each month, according to U.S. Census data.

Just under half that number live in Boone County; the rest live in the seven adjacent counties where there are fewer support services, little public transportation and a declining job base.

The poverty line for a single person is $12,490 in annual income, or $25,750 for a four-person household, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The guideline increases $4,420 for each additional person in a household.

“Once I get everything else paid … I might have $10, and that’s for the whole month,” Bennett said. “I can’t buy my food.”

Over the past nine months, GateHouse Media gathered statistics and conducted interviews about every aspect of life in eight counties of Central Missouri — Audrain, Boone, Callaway, Cole, Cooper, Howard, Moniteau and Randolph — and how things have changed over the past 20 to 50 years.

The economic divide that has seen thousands of new jobs in Boone County while jobs have been lost in adjacent counties is being felt in the poverty rates — poverty is growing in the rural counties while it is declining in Boone County, according to Census Bureau data.

From 1989 to 2017, the poverty rate increased in five of the seven counties adjacent to Boone while it fell within Boone County.

In 1989, Boone County had the highest poverty rate in the region. In 2017, poverty rates in both Audrain and Randolph exceeded the rate in Boone.

Economic issues

The worst period of poverty for rural communities was after the 2008 housing market crash. In 2009, about one in five people were considered impoverished in Audrain and Randolph counties, according to Census data.

Many of mid-Missouri’s rural communities have yet to fully recover after the Great Recession.

Poverty is not hard to spot, especially to those who live in it everyday, Bennett said.

“Anybody that takes the time to look can see how poverty is hitting us,” he said.

Brenda Proctor, a professor teaching financial planning at the University of Missouri, grew up poor in Caplinger Mills, a small, unincorporated community in northern Cedar County. For years, Proctor also worked closely with people in poverty as part of the University of Missouri Extension.

Poverty in rural areas is more challenging than ever because of the negative stigma and lack of local resources, she said.

“What I’ve noticed in my work is that in those days you could be poor and survive if you lived in a community where people around you were also struggling,” Proctor said. “... Poverty is a much more isolating experience now.”

There was a sense of community among those considered poor in her hometown, she said. No one went hungry because neighbors helped each other to survive. Proctor didn’t even realize her family was poor until she went to college.

“(As a child) I honestly didn’t realize how poor we were,” Proctor said. “It wasn’t until I went to college and I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, where are people getting all of this stuff?’ … But even when I realize how poor I had grown up, I still had memories of people respecting my dad and treating me with respect.”

The cycle of poverty is difficult to escape, because those who were raised in poverty often have fewer resources with which to establish themselves as adults, Proctor said. Data show that poverty also disproportionately affects children, with impacts on development, education and health.

The highest rate of poverty in Boone County is among adults aged 18 to 64, while the highest rates for six of its seven neighbors are among children. The seven counties adjoining Boone have 20 percent more people but almost 75 percent more children living in poverty.

The highest child poverty rates are in Audrain County, with an estimated 27 percent of people under 18 in poverty, and Randolph County, with 26 percent of children in poverty.

Poverty and homelessness are consistently overlooked or ignored in rural communities, said Dan Brewer, who serves on the board of directors and as an in-house manager for the Harvest House, a homeless shelter, in Boonville.

“In big towns (poverty) is accepted,” Brewer said. “We know there is a big segment that’s homeless, and everybody accepts that. But in small towns, they don’t want to admit it.”

Brewer was homeless for the second time in his life after the housing market crash. He uses these experiences while managing the Harvest House.

“These are human beings,” Brewer said. “These are people that are just like me, that all of a sudden they found themselves without a home.”

The shelter is open to families 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, which is unique among homeless shelters in mid-Missouri. People staying in the shelter must have a job or be searching for one.

Jon Shields, 38, has lived in poverty since his mother died when he was a child living in Fayette. He was living at the Harvest House in February, while attempting to find a job and housing in the area.

“My mom died when I was really young, and my dad got sick after that,” Shields said. “I was always living with my friends, and things just kind of got harder and harder and harder.”

Shields eventually had his own health problems, which caused him to fall behind on rent payments, which eventually led to his homelessness.

“What really hit me was when I got a staph infection,” Shield said. “You can’t work a job when you’ve got that kind of stuff going on. I got behind on rent, and it’s been a hard life since. ...I’ve been trying to get back on feet on my right now. It’s been a process.”

Seeking Shelter

Philip Iman of Mexico is executive director of the Laura Miller George Help Center, a food pantry and thrift store hybrid designed to assist those in poverty in Audrain County. Most people are unaware of the amount of poverty in Audrain County, he said.

“When you’re going about living your life here in Mexico, Missouri... most of the time you don’t realize that there are people who are feeling food insecurity, who are homeless and don’t have what you and I have,” he said. “... I think it’s astounding, really. It’s a hidden epidemic.”

A cold-weather homeless shelter has opened for the past five winters in Mexico. It is obvious to those working there that a year-round shelter is necessary, Iman said.

People in Moberly have also tried to address this issue to no avail. The Moberly Planning and Zoning Commission denied a request to open the Mission of Hope shelter in 2018 after residents expressed concerns about a possible increase in crime and decrease in nearby property values.

The shelter had a temporary-use permit to serve as emergency housing during cold weather, but the request to make the shelter permanent was ultimately denied.

Carma Smith, director of the Christos Center, said there are a lot of people in Moberly in denial about poverty and homelessness.

“They don't want to believe that Moberly has a problem and I think they would be surprised how many people are homeless,” Smith said.

While the Safe Passage shelter in Moberly serves women and children who have been involved in domestic violence, there aren’t shelters for men in Randolph County.

“We have a shelter for battered women, but we don't have anywhere for men to go,” Smith said. “Well, men get in the same situations that women do, and we have nowhere for them to go.”

Homeless shelters help treat the symptoms of poverty, but a more viable long-term solution is offering more low-income housing, Iman said.

Housing and Transportation

Callaway and Audrain counties lead the way in the seven-county area in terms of low-income housing units relative to their populations in poverty, according to census five-year estimates. Callaway County had 1,874 low-income housing units through federal programs, which can serve about 37 percent of the county’s impoverished population. Audrain has 852 low-income housing units, enough to house about 21 percent of the poor population.

Cole and Howard counties have the least available low-income housing, only having enough to house 1.75 percent and 3.97 percent, respectively, of those eligible.

“Rental property is about the only option,” Iman said. “...But what happens is you have landlords that have been burned many times by people who didn’t respect their property or didn’t pay. Then on the other side, you have tenants who have been burned by landlords who didn’t take care of their property and refused to fix things. It’s just this big vicious circle.”

Despite the struggles, Iman said he is optimistic as long as one family at a time can be helped.

“What we want to do is ... bring together the landlords and potential tenants to help both sides understand,” he said. “I know that sounds like a fairytale, but I believe it can happen.”

Another recent roadblock to low-income housing a cut to subsidies available to developers. In 2017, the Missouri Housing Development Commission voted to stop issuing state low-income housing tax credits, leaving only federal credits that drew fewer proposals.

Development of additional low-income housing is unlikely without tax credits being reinstated, MU’s Proctor said.

Transportation, or lack thereof, is a largely unaddressed problem for poor people in rural communities as well, Iman said.

In the seven-county area surrounding Boone County, the average square mileage per county is 556 square miles. Each county only has one population hub where the majority of resources aiding the poor exist. For example, Vandalia, a city of about 3,900 people including 2,000 incarcerated prisoners, sits on the northeast corner of Audrain County. The shortest route between Vandalia and Mexico, county seat, is about 27 miles.

For those without a vehicle, the trek from a smaller community on the outskirts of a rural county to a population center can be costly.

Fuel, registration and maintenance costs can quickly add up for people who barely have enough money to get by, Smith, with the Christos Center, said. Rural households spend more on gasoline and motor oil, and spend more on used vehicles, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While some transportation options are available in rural areas, such as OATS Transit and Magic City Express in Moberly, they have limitations. The cost is $2 per destination, and for those living farther away from population centers where resources are available, multiple stops are needed for each trip, Smith said.

“We have people that come with grocery carts … or baby carriages to put their groceries in,” Smith said. “Sometimes they don’t have the $2 to ride the bus. That’s a problem we do have in Moberly, is transportation for people to get their food where it needs to be.”

Even if people can afford the transportation, rides have to scheduled ahead of time and they are only available on certain weekdays, depending on the county. For smaller communities in Howard County, the OATS buses only make one trip per month to Moberly.

Even though having a car can solve the issue of getting from point A to B, it can create another financial burden on those already struggling.

“I had a lady come in, she had to fix her car and she didn’t have enough money for food,” Smith said. “She was ashamed. I said, ‘That's what we’re here for.’ ... It’s bad that people have to do those things, but with the cost of living the way it is, it just happens.”

While there are advantages to having resources pooled together in population centers, it also means some people in need have a greater challenge accessing them, Bennett said during an interview at the Christos Center.

“A lot of people can’t get around and get down to a place that far away, even though it’s still considered in Moberly,” he said. “Generally, that person in poverty doesn’t have anybody else they know around that is able to help them. If the only people you know work nine to five, there’s no chance of somebody being able to get in there.”

Coming up with a viable solution to transportation issues would take a concerted community effort and a “community champion” to drive the movement forward, otherwise a long-term solution is unlikely to pan out, Proctor said.

“So who is it that’s going to do this?,” she said. “I don’t see anybody coming in to help a very small community come up with any kind of system, unless it’s somebody local who is driven to solve this problem. That does happen, but that’s not a very good way to do policy.”

Food insecurity

Other challenges the poor face in rural communities is limited access to affordable, nutritious food. The lack of a sufficient quantity of affordable and nutritious food is known as food insecurity.

In Randolph County, 16.9 percent of people experienced food insecurity, according to the 2016 Missouri Hunger Atlas. As with the poverty data, a greater percentage of minors experienced food insecurity, about 23 percent.

Nearly 31 percent of the county’s population is eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called Food Stamps, which is considered low, according to the Hunger Atlas.

A smaller percentage of people face food insecurity in Audrain County, despite having a higher overall poverty rate. About 15 percent of people in the county experience food insecurity, nearly 23 percent of which are 18 or younger. About 30 percent of Audrain residents are eligible for SNAP.

Most of the food pantries, including the Christos Center and the Help Center, are funded through donations from the Food Bank of Central and Northeast Missouri. In 2017, more than 6.3 million pounds of food was shipped to organizations in the seven counties surrounding Boone County, according to the Food Bank of Central and Northeast Missouri. Approximately 6.9 million pounds of food was distributed inside Boone County.

Often local churches and businesses contribute food as well, Iman, of Mexico’s Laura Miller George Help Center, said.

“There is a concentration of resources (in Columbia),” he said. “That’s why you see a lot of people that are homeless end up there is because they have homeless shelters. They have soup kitchens.”

In the seven-county area surrounding Boone County, 49.2 percent of all students are participating in either free or reduced lunch enrollment in school, according to data from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Cooper County has the highest free and reduced lunch rate of 58.2 percent, with Audrain County immediately trailing at 57.7 percent, according to DESE data. Boone County has the lowest free and reduced rate of 38.3 percent, with other counties having between 46.4 and 52.83 percent rates, the data show.

Eligibility for a free or reduced-price lunch is tied to family income. Children from families at 130 percent or less of the poverty guideline —$32,630 for a family of four — are eligible for free lunch. The price is reduced for families with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty guideline, $46,435 for a family of four.

A Bleak Outlook

Though overall poverty rates have decreased in the past few years, the root causes of poverty are still present in many of the communities in rural mid-Missouri. Without policy changes on the federal, state and local levels, along with a concerted community effort, a significant decrease in rural poverty is unlikely for the foreseeable future, Proctor said.

“I’m now old enough, and I’m toward the end of my career, I’ve finally decided that I will never even come close to solving many problems in this world, and neither will anybody after me,” she said. “I guess I’ve lost my optimism that we’re going to address this problem and solve it. I hate to say there is no answer, but honestly, in a lot of these isolated rural communities I don’t see a way out at this point.”

Mark Renshaw, a volunteer at the Christos Center and semi-retired railroad worker, is also skeptical that poverty can be eliminated.

“There ain’t no way to get rid of poverty,” Renshaw said. “...I think most of these people (in poverty) are disabled or they are underskilled. There are a lot of women out there that got their children, and they’re doing the best they can, but no one else is supporting them.”

The fight against poverty is a two-front war, a systemic issue that needs to be solved through broader policies and a community effort to assist those who are struggling personally, Iman said.

“It’s much more than having a home,” he said. “It’s having a job, food… transportation and having people willing to mentor. That is huge, because when they have people surrounding them, that care about them and believe in them, they are much more likely to succeed. That is our goal.”

While poverty may be near impossible to completely solve, there are steps that can be taken in the right direction, but that starts with policy on the state and federal level, said Jessica Hoey, the director of public affairs and community engagement at the Missouri Community Action Network.

Transportation, housing, food, education and health are all aspects that need to be addressed by policymakers before any change will come, she said.

One such step in the right direction is the recent increase in Missouri’s minimum wage, Hoey said.

The increase was approved by voters in November to $8.60 an hour and will increase annually until it is $12 an hour for 2023. After that, it will be indexed for inflation..

“Everyone’s dream, who does this work, is that poverty can be solved,” Hoey said. “... There is a shrinking middle class. We have folks who are really on one end of the spectrum or the other, whether it'd be that you're very wealthy or that you're very poor. This mentality of ‘just pick yourself up by your bootstraps’ still continues to this day. Well, what if someone doesn't have a boot to go along with the strap?”

ecliburn@moberlymonitor.com

Part I: While Boone County booms, neighbors struggle with change

Part I Extra: Westmoreland: A journey together into 'Rural Divide'

Part II: Effects of factory closures continue to linger 

Part II Extra: Some cities face uphill battle in tech-driven economy

Part III: Mid-Missouri is ‘leaking’ sales tax revenue

Part IV: Small schools see challenges, rewards

Part IV Extra: Small town, big field of dreams

Part V: Rural areas have limited health care, lower life expectancy

Part VI: Communities struggling to maintain basic infrastructure

Part VI Extra: Rocheport bridge rehab could be 'poison pill'

Part VII: Fewer Mid-Missouri farmers are tending bigger farms

Part VIII: Poverty a 'hidden epidemic' in mid-Missouri

Part IX: Few alternatives to prison exist in Mid-Missouri