Tight labor market means few job prospects for many poor in US

There is a widely held view that many among the poor don't want to work. But interviews with poor families in Appalachia and here in Mississippi, the nation's poorest state, reveal a strong desire for jobs among many of the poor.

David Huntley is a part-time carpenter's assistant. His daughter attends college on a federal grant. The family collects aluminum cans to help pay utility bills.

He's just finished another stint of volunteer work on the cement-block day-care center near his house in this small town. His forehead drips with perspiration from his labors sun.

Lately he's had a lot of free time. Housing construction around here has ground to a near-halt because of high interest rates. But even in a normal year his $3.85-an-hour job brought in only about $3,000 a year because of frequent layoffs between projects.

If work picks up again he says he hopes to be able to buy insurance on the small, modest home he and his brother built here years ago in a black neighborhood. And his wife, Cherlie, says she hopes they can one day afford to finish renovating the house, which badly needs attention.

''I've been working ever since I was 13 years old,'' says Mr. Huntley, a veteran of World War II.

Meanwhile, unable to find a job herself, his wife helps him collect aluminum cans. They are paid only 17 cents a pound now for the cans, but every bit helps.

''I don't hardly have enough to pay my light bill and gas,'' she explains to a visitor as they sit in the living room with its worn linoleum floor.

She's an active community volunteer - taking people to the polls at election time and helping on other local projects. Five years ago she went back to college to study political science on a federal grant. But the school closed and she lost the grant. She has also worked as a VISTA volunteer in a nearby town.

None of their children live full time at home. One attends college in Jackson , Miss., and doesn't plan to marry until she has earned some money to help out her parents. Her mother says she's worried because the daughter hasn't had any new college clothes for about two years. They are looking for a place to buy some inexpensive jeans for her. The other daughter married at age 16 and now, at 20, has a child and is unemployed.

Despite the Huntley family's low income, food isn't a problem. The Huntley's receive $128 a month in food stamps. And they have a garden and some chickens. In the kitchen are three shelves of tomatoes, pickles, peaches, and other items Mrs. Huntley has canned.

Things are ''tough'' today, says Huntley, as he lifts his grandson into his arms. ''If it wasn't for the food stamps, I don't know what I'd do.''

In nearby Lexington, Miss., Mary Hightower, long a community leader among the poor, says families who, unlike the Huntleys, depend on federal child support (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) do not receive enough to ''break the chain'' and move out of poverty.

When a mother finds work, AFDC payments are cut back and she loses medicaid coverage completely. This tends to thwart the incentive to look for work that often is there, Ms. Hightower says. A woman has to earn enough to pay for a babysitter and possible medical care lost as she tries to break away from AFDC dependency, she says.

''Some people are lazy; for me, I'd love to work,'' says Mazola Marie McCoy, a single parent trying to raise three children in a Lexington public housing project. She has applied for work at a number of local businesses - with no replies. Her income: $283 a month in food stamps and $120 a month in AFDC. Her utilities alone run as much as $96 a month, she says.

A neighbor in the housing project, Ida Andrews, is raising three children alone and due to a recent move was receiving only $60 a month in AFDC (until the paper work is completed on the other children) and $233 a month in food stamps.

She insists that her children do their homework before going out to play. And she is not complaining about her poverty. Life, she says, is ''better now'' for her than as a child when she picked cotton, wore dresses of flour sacks, and sometimes had to go to school barefoot.

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