January 11, 2014

Profile: Pursuing a Degree to Climb out of Poverty

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Instructor Joe Haynes (left) helps Brittney Scott with her math homework at the South Tulsa Community House, where Scott is taking GED classes.

Austin St. John

Instructor Joe Haynes (left) helps Brittney Scott with her math homework at the South Tulsa Community House, where Scott is taking GED classes.

For some of the unemployed or underemployed, higher education becomes an avenue out of poverty.

Three months have passed since Brittney Scott, 23, began General Educational Development (GED) classes in south Tulsa.

A single mother of two, Scott lives off the money she receives each month from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a federally funded but state-administered grant program for low income families with children.

Scott dropped out of high school when her family moved to Tulsa from Lenapah before her senior year. She said living in a city riddled with drug use and gang violence made it easy to become an addict herself.

Her abuse of methamphetamine and marijuana almost cost Scott her kids.

“The breaking point for me was when I looked back at what I said to the judge in court about my daughter. I actually told him, ‘You can take her. I can just have another one,’” she said.

Even after finishing substance abuse treatment through Tulsa County’s Family Drug Court and being clean for two years, the words she threw at the judge still haunt her.

She decided to go back to school.

Now Scott spends her days in class at the South Tulsa Community House, an agency that provides educational opportunities, food, transportation and counseling services to people in the area.

Math is a challenge, but relearning algebra and untangling complicated essay prompts will be worthwhile when Scott takes the GED. She hopes to pass by February.

TANF provides Scott about $600 a month to care for her two children, Hailee, 2, and Dalton, 1. She also receives $490 in food stamps and free daycare services while she attends class. Before moving in with her parents, Scott paid $25 rent in a normally $825 per month unit in the Fairmont Terrace apartment complex. Also the site of the January 2013 quadruple homicide, the Section 8 housing sits embedded in the 61st Street and South Peoria area, where 44 percent of residents live below the poverty level, according to data from the Census Bureau.

Scott sees getting her GED, attending college and making use of TANF in the meantime as a way out of the violence and poverty. She knows not everyone approves of the government money provided to mothers in her situation.

Some have even confronted her.

“They’ve said every dollar of my food comes out of their pockets. I know it comes from tax payer money, but it’s not like I’m here for the long run,” Scott said. “I don’t want to have to have all this stuff.”

Oklahoma limits TANF benefits to a five-year maximum. By the time her five years runs out, Scott hopes to be done with school.

The ultimate goal: find a job with her new degree and move back to Lenapha with her children.

“I can’t live without my daughter and son,” Scott said. “I’m not going to lose them.”