Poverty Tightens Grip On Mississippi Delta
Just as in Coahoma, before machines made manual harvesting nearly extinct in Lake Providence, there was full employment for everyone, including small children, who often skipped school to pick cotton and vegetables. The wages, while meager, ensured that families could support themselves year-round. But with few field jobs and no factories, when the poverty center opens its doors to dole out brown-paper sacks filled with potatoes, cheese, peppers and powdered milk, young and old line up for their share.
"A lot of people run out of groceries and don't have money to buy more," said Ethel Emerson, 70, who collected a free bag of food on a recent morning along with hundreds of neighbors. "This gives them a way to keep going."
Hunt, a Lake Providence native, worked in larger cities, including Miami and Baton Rouge, La. She was often judgmental when she came home to visit. "I used to say, 'What's wrong with these people -- why can't they do better?' " Hunt said.
Now, after returning home to attend graduate school, she said she realizes there just are not enough jobs. So she spends a good portion of her time lobbying legislators in Baton Rouge for tax incentives to lure businesses.
"Just one factory or plant could make a huge difference," she said.
Back in Mississippi, Jane Boykin, president of the Jackson-based Forum on Children and Families, lobbies on poverty and child welfare before the state legislature. No matter how successful she is, the work is never done. Mississippi is at or near the top in all the wrong categories: births to single teens, low-birth-weight babies, illiteracy.
"Poverty is not just an economic indicator here," Boykin said. "It's a part of our economy. There are a large group of people for whom poverty provides employment" as they dole out food at shelters and work for organizations that help the poor.
Coahoma is one of those vexing places where poverty is entrenched. In the center of cotton country, the town lies 60 miles south of Memphis in the flat alluvial flood plain of the Mississippi Delta. Trains filled with cotton and passengers once made this an active trading center, but mechanization changed things drastically by the 1940s, effectively ending sharecropping and leaving a community bereft of jobs.
So as many southerners had before them, Coahoma residents fled the Delta for jobs in the North. The town continued to decline, reaching a low point in 1977 when its school closed for good. It would be nearly another decade before things began to look up.
Coahoma Mayor W.J. Jones can talk at length about what the town needs: jobs, money, a tax base. But as he travels the community, visiting with residents, he remains optimistic. There had not been a new house in town in two decades before Habitat for Humanity showed up. Now, some young people are returning, slowly investing in homes and property.
"The problems are so great sometimes that you feel you're not making a dent," said Jones, a former principal, who has presided over this town since 1982. "But I'm optimistic. We want to improve the quality of life for those who come after us. I know it might be some years."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Ethel Emerson, 70, rests after picking up a free bag of groceries at the Louisiana Center Against Poverty in Lake Providence, La.
(Robert E. Pierre -- The Washington Post)