Steve Jones faces tough audiences on a daily basis. The defendants who stand before him in Superior Court include murderers, armed robbers, wife beaters, deadbeat dads, and scofflaws of every description. But when Jones (BBA '78, JD '87) appeared at the Georgia Department of Labor building on a cold, rainy evening in late January, the tables were turned to some extent because an audience of concerned citizens was there to judge Judge Jones and the efforts of his OneAthens colleagues.
Conceived in January 2006 by a group of five co-conveners — Athens-Clarke County Government, Athens Chamber of Commerce, Clarke County School District, Family Connection, and the University of Georgia — the OneAthens initiative is a volunteer community collaboration dedicated to doing what the local government and dozens of social welfare programs haven't been able to do on their own: Reduce poverty in Athens-Clarke County.
If the words poverty and Athens-Clarke County seem incongruous, think again.
Yes, the Classic City is beautiful, and there's no mistaking the immense civic pride and rah-rah spirit that permeate this charming Southern college town. But looks can be deceiving, and statistics don't lie. The cold, hard fact is that the poverty rate in Athens-Clarke County is 28.3 percent — eighth-highest among Georgia's 159 counties. If you narrow the parameters to just the city limits, Athens registers the fifth-highest poverty rate in the nation. A community known for excellence in higher education graduates only 60.5 percent of its high school students. The median household income is $28,403 and nearly 40 percent of the local population lives under the 150 percent poverty threshold, which, for a family of four, is $20,444.
"If you live outside Athens and all you do is come to school here — or attend football games at Sanford Stadium — you never see what's on the other side of the Arch," says Jones, who was raised by a divorced mother under less-than-ideal conditions himself on Athens' west side. Bused to grade schools far from his Timothy Road neighborhood, Jones disputes the notion that he grew up poor, but adds with a wry smile, "That's not to say we were well off either!"
Jones says he sees poverty everywhere in the Athens-Clarke County community.
"I see it in housing, in the lack of education, in teenage pregnancy — which is the foundation for a lifetime of poverty — and in the circumstances that cause many people to appear before me in court. Poverty causes people to make bad decisions."
[Please note: Since the publication of this story in the Spring 2008 issue of Terry Magazine, Steve Jones has relinquished the chairmanship of the overall OneAthens anti-poverty effort. He is now chairman of the OneAthens Foundation, which has been renamed the Athens Area Community Foundation.]