COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - You're invited to participate in this special town hall meeting called "The Dream Lives - Breaking the Cycle of Poverty."
It will be held this Thursday from 7:30 to 9 p.m. in the Council Chambers of the new City Services Building on Macon Rd. and will be streamed on our website.
We continue our special reports on diversity with some of the key reasons people are poor and what can be done to break the cycle.
Experts say getting an education, then getting married, and having a child after you're 21 make for an easier road to success, but they're not the only ways to prevent poverty.
News Leader 9's Jason Dennis sat down with students to discuss what high school diplomas really mean these days.
For many, getting that high school diploma is a rite of passage. Without it, you'll likely have a job earning much less money and may even tumble into poverty. For some area students, that's already reality.
Muscogee County schools superintendent David Lewis knows the district has no control over what happens at home, but he doesn't want those circumstances at home to force a teen to drop out of high school and keep a child from eating.
"We do have a very high rate of students I know are being served free or reduced meals, which is certainly an indicator of the amount of poverty," Lewis said.
We sat down with three students at Hardaway High School to get their diverse perspectives on the connections between education and poverty.
"I have plenty of friends who I didn't realize were impoverished," said Hardaway senior Quentin Blount.
"I see that poverty is very real in this community," said Hardaway junior Seychelle Hercules.
We asked them if they felt that education gets a bad rep sometimes and is not seen as important.
"It's important because it gives you a higher chance of job, but not everyone's going to get a job because we don't have enough jobs to hand out to people," said Hardaway senior Zachary Williams.
"I'm a firm believer that high school and college isn't for everyone," Blount said. "I definitely know people who have dropped out of high school but are actually successful."
"The dad and mom will both drop out to fulfill jobs and try to be able to raise the child to the best of their ability," Williams said.
"On the one side, yes you'll be able to work and provide, but if you don't have a high school diploma, you're not really going to be able to get those upper end jobs," said Hercules. "That will lead to a snowballing of different effects like the rise of crime and homelessness and unemployment."
A recent Georgia Wage Survey reveals that the average dropout earns an average of about $22,000 a year compared to nearly $30,000 for high school graduates and $59,000 for college grads.
"Education is, in my view, the only legal way that they're going to rise above their current status," said Lewis.
"Most of them I hear about dropped out, they're going to jail," said Blount. "Some are pursuing a GED, some got pregnant."
New numbers show an increase in Muscogee County's graduation rate, which is still in the low 70s but exceeding the state average.
The bigger picture is that 30 percent of children who do not finish high school are more likely to be arrested or enroll in welfare programs, also causing a burden on society with lost tax revenue and increased health care costs.
"An educated community only benefits the entire community at large," said Lewis. "I personally want to see us look at the possibility of developing some kind of dropout retrieval program."
Follow-ups with those students who gave up on high school, with a bridge to post-secondary education.
The teens we spoke with say they're involved in community organizations with programs to help kids achieve and avoid poverty.
"There's not only Girls Incorporated, there's Boys & Girls Club," said Hercules. "Open Door has an after school program."
"The stuff Seychelle was talking about, I wasn't even sure that was going on," Williams said.
The groups they're talking about also provide mentoring and tutoring, helping to achieve Martin Luther King Junior's dream, which is steeped in education.
"If you work hard, provide opportunities for yourself and take advantage of those opportunities, you too, in this country, can still aspire to be anything you choose to be," Lewis said. "I think that's exactly what Martin Luther King Jr. was trying to envision."