She went to college, bought a home in Austell and got an advanced certification to further her career.
But one thing went wrong: the economy.
Now, the 50-year-old mother can’t find steady work and is struggling to pay the bills.
“There are some days you just go in the closet and get on your knees and say, ‘Lord, please send me something,’” said Warner who was laid off in 2011 and now works at a warehouse that services convenience stores.
Warner found a job soon after she graduated from Kennesaw State University in 1994 with her bachelor’s degree in public and social services.
When her 10-year-old son, Savion McCollum, was born, she became certified in medical billing and coding work as well.
Warner worked from home for a while and then found employment at a wellness company that distributes information about diseases and healthy living.
Her department was outsourced after she’d been with the company for five years and she was laid off.
Warner isn’t alone.
The number of individuals and families considered to be living in poverty in Cobb County has doubled since 2000, and that rate is growing more quickly than Atlanta’s urban core.
About 12.6 percent of Cobb’s population is living in poverty. That’s double the 6.1 percent from 2000.
During the same period, the city of Atlanta’s rate rose from 9.5 percent to 14.8 percent — a 5.3 percent increase, one percentage point less than the change seen in Cobb.
Warner is taking on the hard times with a smile and has been able to keep her home. Her son has also been able to stay enrolled in recreational sports, but she says it has taken sacrifices.
It’s hard to keep her head above water.
“You always just hope for a better day … I think it’s just a matter of attitude,” Warner said.
It’s a kind of poverty that isn’t discriminating.
Cobb resident Linda Logan has two master’s degrees. She had a long career in the real estate and urban planning, but now she’s out of work.
“I have no savings,” Logan said at a job workshop presented by MUST Ministries.
She’s been to several programs learning how to market herself to potential employers, but has been unemployed for five years.
“Things don’t look good on a resume when you’ve been out of a job for a while,” Logan said.
Poverty at a record high
Cobb’s highest poverty rates are found in the southern tip of the county near Six Flags Drive and I-20, the area north of Veterans Memorial Parkway and east of Austell Road, and a section of the county extending from Concord Road in Smyrna to the northern part of Marietta, according to the 2007-2011 American Community Survey.
Shrinking paychecks aren’t limited to Cobb, though. A record 15 percent of Americans, 46.2 million, were in poverty in 2011. That’s the highest amount since the Census Bureau started keeping track. Numbers from 2012 aren’t any brighter.
It’s not that poor families are moving from urban neighborhoods to suburbia, said Mike Carnathan, a researcher for the Atlanta Regional Commission that hosted a conference on the subject earlier this month.
He says more Cobb residents have fallen into poverty.
The urban core is still impoverished, Carnathan said, but the Great Recession left some families who thought they were comfortably in the middle class struggling to pay their bills.
About 41 percent of Cobb families had to decide if they’d pay the rent, utility bills or put food on the table last year, said Milton Little Jr., president of the United Way of Greater Atlanta which participated in the ARC conference.
Low income families may seek out suburban communities for affordable housing and better schools, but there isn’t any evidence that suggests urban dwellers favor Cobb over other Atlanta suburbs.
“They are seeking jobs, safety and overall better quality of life,” Little said.
Still, Cobb is better off than many of its suburban counterparts. Clayton County saw an 11.6 percent jump in the poverty rate compared to Cobb’s 6.5 percent increase. Gwinnett County saw an 8.7 percent increase and Bartow County has increased 8.1 percent.
Poverty more than homelessness The Great Recession has changed the face of poverty.
“What most people don’t relate to is that you can be very financially desperate and not be homeless,” said Kaye Cagle, spokeswoman for MUST Ministries which operates a homeless shelter and provides other services to low-income individuals.
A family could be living in a $600,000 home in east Cobb one day, she said, be foreclosed on and end up on the stoop of her shelter the next week.
“I think there’s a misunderstanding of what the face of suburban poverty looks like. It looks like you and me,” Cagle said. “The poverty issue goes beyond homelessness.”
Lisa Cupid, who represents southwest Cobb on the Board of Commissioners, agrees.
“People in neighborhoods, people that I know, are suffering now, and they don’t necessarily see themselves in poverty.”
Of the 34,000 people MUST Ministries helped last year, almost half were children, Cagle said, and most have a place to call home.
Organizations that try to help low income families are stretched thin as more people knock on their doors seeking assistance.
Cagle says she’s seeing an increase in the number of families who need help getting back on their feet. The MUST Ministries homeless shelter turned away about 51 families last month.
Fixing the problem
It’s all about jobs, Cagle says.
“That’s the most critical issue right now for people to get out of their crisis,” Cagle said. “Certainly, people are trying to find work wherever they can find it.”
Redevelopment and job creation are the answer, said Bob Ott, who represents southeast Cobb, another part of the county with hard-hit areas.
Though the economy seems to be on a rebound, Ott is cautious.
“I don’t think the economy has turned around as much nationwide or locally as people think,” Ott said. “A lot of people are still out there suffering.”
He says it needs to be easier for small business owners to start a company or expand.
“With those businesses will come jobs,” Ott said.
It won’t be easy to get people back on their feet, says Cupid, southwest Cobb commissioner.
“It’s difficult because we have a declining tax digest and we have increasing needs,” Cupid said.
And there’s a conflict between two political voices about how to best address the problem.
One voice says government shouldn’t be in the business of charity and should stop providing some services. Its opposition says the government should do what it can to help citizens.
“It creates a difficult environment to help persons who may have the greatest need,” Cupid said.
The issue is best addressed regionally, said Little, president of the United Way.
“Our elected officials are in a position to pass legislation aimed at strengthening the existing safety nets for the poor and adding to them,” Little said.
But it’s not enough to just have those safety nets.
“Although temporary shelter and food are absolutely necessary, we must focus on long-term sustainable impact, which includes a quality education for all, improving the financial stability of families, access to health care and the eradication of homelessness,” Little said.