A visitor remembers the signs of poverty long after touring this rural Delta town 65 miles north of Jackson.
You remember the mother in one shack with her eightmonth-old twins, so pitifully small they look newborn. You recall the cockroaches that don't bother to scurry in the dark. They crawl, fat and bold in the sunlight, over everything -- over the picture of Martin Luther King on the wall, over the legs of the heavy-set grandmother, over the arm of the baby drinking a bottle of milk on the floor.
You remember Lady Bird Avenue, named in some distant beautification ritual, where senators and the media came in 1967 to deplore the fact that children were starving in Mississippi. But flowers still don't grow there, and newspapers are still stuck in gaping cracks in shack walls, and little seems changed in a decade.
There has been some progress in Mississippi in the past 10 years. Head Start, food stamps, Medicare have come to towns like Belzoni. But it is a toss-up whether conditions should be called better or just less horrible.
"We have a baby on our street ate up by roaches," says one man in Belzoni, Dr. Aaron Shirley, director of a Jackson health clinic, explains what the man means; "Cockroaches do bite. Especially the thumb-sized ones. Kids scratch them and get secondary infections -- impetigo." In summer, when children wear little clothing, "we can see that 60 to 70 per cent of them have impetigo. The old people call it 'Indian fire' because it spreads so fast."
Dr. Shirley says that 25 per cent of all children the clinic sees for the first time have worms, that 20 per cent are anemic, and that most are malnourished. He then reaches for an autopsy report of a 5-year-old girl. She died in June of secondary pneumonia, brought about by a bacterial infection caused by worms in her intestines.
Ever since President Carter began talking about welfare reform, hopes have risen again among many of the poor in Mississippi, which has the lowest welfare payments in the nation. Some 350,000 people receive some type of public assistance in the state. Currently, an average family of four gets $720 a year plus $1,800 in food stamps. Under the Carter proposal, food stamps would be eliminated and that family would get a flat federal payment of $4,200 a year.
But in Mississippi as elsewhere, some people would actually be worse off under the Carter plan. These are the convoluted extended families -- three generations in a household is not uncommon -- which exceed Carter's cutoff of seven members to a family. By combining a number of benefits -- supplemental pay for the aged, blind and disabled, and food stamps allotted by family size -- many actually fare better now.
The household of Mariah Camp is an example. Camp is 89 and lives with her daughter, Verna Jimmerson, and Jimmerson's eight children in a federally subsidized brick housing project in Belzoni. With its sturdy, painted walls, its bedrooms and kitchen, it is a palace compared to many Belzoni shacks. Camp gets old age assistance; two of her grandchildren, classified as moderately retarded, get supplemental learning-disability benefits, and the family gets $194 a month in free food stamps. The total assistance is $9,108 a year for the family of 10.
Under Carter's proposal, Verna Jimmerson and six of her children could file as a unit of seven. Mariah Camp could file separately. But the total, including the learning-disability benefits, would still come to only $8,700. The family would lose $400.
In New York, where current benefits under the large program of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) plus shelter payments for a typical family of four total $5,712 annually, families would definitely be hurt under the Carter plan if there were no supplemental state payments. Administration planners assume that states with supplemental benefits would continue them. But in Mississippi, where there is neither the political nor social climate for such state help, the extended family could suffer, admits John Todd, a planner for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
"But we feel we are giving the money to the family that really needs it, say a mother with four children and no grandmother, income or anything," he says.
Mattie Mays is almost a textbook case of the welfare family envisioned by the Carter administration. She is 24 and lives with her six children a few blocks from Mariah Camp in a two-room shack with bare, exposed walls. What little warmth there is comes from an open flame heater. For her, as for many other shack dwellers, the choice in winter is between spending money on fuel or on food stamps. there is not enough money for both.
Under the Carter proposal, Mays would get $6,000 a year. Today, counting aid for her children and food stamps, she gets about $4,000.
With $2,000 extra a year, Mattie Mays said, she would "find a better place to live, get the kids the clothes they needs. Most things I buy is spaghetti, rice, peas, beans, baby foods."
The living room, with lineoleum for a carpet, contained a bed and a cheap but ornate red-and-white brocade sofa. Two paper plates, crayoned by one of her children, were tacked as paintings on the wall. Mays' back room had several beds, a sink with only cold water, and a stove.The rooms were neat, but there was no bath. Four of her children, ages 7 years down to 18 months, raced through the house, clung to her as she talked, dragged out a pot half-filled with spaghetti.
In one crib in the back room were her youngest two, thin and sickly. Mays is the mother of the eight-month-old twins who weighed only two to three pounds when born prematurely. Mays recalled what she was told about the private ambulance that took the babies 65 miles to a Jackson hospital. "They say its gonna cost me $520. Medicaid won't cover that. There's no way I can pay that."
Money is a constant worry to Mays. Her former husband, and the father of her oldest children recently died in a trailer fire. she occasionally gets money from the father of her other children. Her $96-a-month welfare check stretches for only the necessities -- rent at $20 a month, $25 for utilities (more in winter), the $15 needed up front to buy food stamps, and $36 monthly payments on that fancy sofa, a refrigerator and other furniture. "If I miss my rent for one month they gonna make me and my children leave."
All of Mattie Mays' children have colds and runny noses. Although Mays is covered by Medicaid, she has to pay 50 cents on each bottle of medicine, and that cost her $5 in one week. And food stamps do not pay for such household items as soap, toilet tissue, toothpaste, toothbrushes, detergent. As Mariah Camp says, "You can't buy no broom or anything you don't eat."
Those struggling to live on current Mississippi welfare payments dispute the myth that it costs less to live in the South. Rent is somewhat cheaper, but food and clothing costs are similar to those in the North. It gets cold in Mississippi, and winter heating bills for poorly built shacks often run $60 a month. Many families are spending their meager AFDC payment on fuel and struggling on diets of beans and rice.
REGARDLESS OF Carter administration intentions, welfare recipients in Mississippi and elsewhere will have to make do with the present system for some time to come. The enthusiasm of last summer, when President Carter lauched his welfare reform plan, has given way to political realities. Conservative members of Congress are picking it to pieces, particularly because of its expense (the Congressional Budget Office estimates that it would cost $21 billion more than if current programs were continued). Liberals claim the work programs are slave labor at slave wages; unions deplore the fact that the public jobs it would provide would be below prevailing wage. Passage is dubious this term, and if and when it does come, no one expects the measure to remain in its present form.
In part, congressional sentiments reflect the two pervasive and interwined attitudes in American today toward welfare recipients -- an indifference that is often reflected in the poor delivery of services to the needy, coupled with a suspicion that most recipients are undeserving cheats.
"The press has done a good job of making it seem as if they are all cheats," said Mississippi welfare commissioner Fred St. Clair. There are the periodic stories of "welfare queens" making a lucrative living out of falsified welfare applications and welfare recipients showing up for food stamps in taxies.
HEW officials echo St. Clair's view that the image of the welfare cheat has been exaggerated. "Of 350,000 receiving aid in Mississippi of some kind, a little over 1 per cent have been reported for fraud," said St. Clair. "The 'mistake' rate --per cent." Nationally, of $15 billion spent annually in AFDC payments, $439.7 million was mispent in underpayments or overpayments. HEW is in the midst of a stepped-up effort to reduce such errors.
The real cheats are the providers," charged St. Clair, not the poor recipients." Last summer, for example, in a matter of weeks HEW turned up 537 verified cases of Medicaid fraud by doctors and druggists.
But such defenses of welfare recipients often reach unsympathetic ears. More typical attitudes were reflected by two men on a plane from Jackson, Miss., to Atlanta. "I didn't mind colored when I lived in Pennsylvania, but here, in the South, they're shiftless," said one man. "I run a plant in Savannah, and they'd rather live off welfare than work. They really cheat the government." His seatmate, a stranger, nodded agreement.
If you start talking about Mattie Mays and other mothers receiving AFDC, an air of righteous morality is intantly injected into the conversation. "Those women shouldn't go around having all those illegitimate kids," said the manager of the Savannah Plant.
ALMOST EVERYONE you talk to in Mississippi -- those on welfare, antipoverty workers, even the state welfare commissioner -- mentions the indifference of the state's welfare delivery system. St. Clair, who served on a Carter welfare reform task force, said that while the program is improving, there are some "pretty awful" carryovers from previous administrations. He deplores a state employment patronage system that makes it nearly impossible to fire punitive welfare county directors:
"We want to restore human dignity to these people's lives, and the ultimate answer is to find welfare workers sensitive to their needs. I've heard of rigid and inflexible welfare workers who on numerous occasions will take people off food stamp if they've missed their review date -- by the day."
Mariah Camp and Verna Jimmerson are cases in point. They tell of being cut off food stamps because Jimmerson quit a domestic job that paid far less than minimum wage.
Jimmerson registered for work (a welfare requirement) and was offered the domestic job. "First the lady told me she was going to pay me $50 a week. She pay me $20 and I started at 7 in the morning and got off at 5. I didn't work for long."
Said her 89-year-old mother: "When I went for the food stamps the woman told me, "the girl quit her job,' and that they would stop food stamps. I been buying stamps ever since they hit Mississippi. They told me if I want them I would have to move out or Verna would. She and I been together 18 years." The stiff-backed old woman, with hose rolled to her knees, stood in the spotless living room, close to crying.
From July until Thanksgiving, the family of 10 went without food stamps. "Me and my kids chopped cotton for $10 a day in the summer. My children eat boiled food [greens and beans] for the whole time," said Jimmerson.
An antipoverty worker who heard about the case complained to county welfare director Carolyn Bridgers. Cutting off the Camp household was an "interpretation of policy," Bridgers said.
Bridgers admitted that the domestic job "definitely was not minimum wage." When asked if she knew it was illegal to cut off food stamps for someone who refused such a job, Bridgers replied, "I don't have to talk to you." In a second call she said that cutting off food stamps "may have been a misinterpretation of policy." Asked about her use of the word "Interpretation" and then "misinterpretation," she said, "Interpretation or misinterpretation -- what's the difference?" After complaints were made to the state welfare commissioner's office, the Camp household was hastily put back on food stamps.
"The Camp case points up our concern about the work portion of Carter's program," said Rims Barber of the Mississippi Children's Defense Fund. "It becomes critical when it's left to local judgmental welfare people to determine whether someone is 'workable' or 'unworkable,' what constitutes a part-time job, whether they care enough to take the trouble to tell a family they can get more money if an elderly person files separately, for example."
The Carter proposal requires the head of a single-parent family with children over the age of 7 and under 14 to take a part-time job. Those with children over 14 would be required to work full time. If they refused, the minimum income floor would be cut nearly in half -- to $2,300 in the case of a family of four.
"A lot of mommas come through the health clinic simply worn out, but medically they'll never convince the welfare people," said Alec Waites, a black social worker. "To be 'unworkable,' they're going to have to be 80, blind, crippled and I don't know what else."
One longtime argument of welfare opponents has been that higher payments would depress the South's low-paying job market, but the Carter "work incentive" proposal provides assistance for the working poor.
For example, a mother of six on welfare under the Carter plan would get $6,000 a year -- just $1,000 less than the average wage of the women who work in Jockey International, Inc., the largest industry in the Belzoni area, which employs 250 people, 90 per cent of them women.
As a work inducement, a similar mother of six who made $7,000 at the company would still get an additional $2,500 in welfare payments.
In blighted areas such as Belzoni (population: 7,000) the more realistic concern is finding work at all. There is some seasonal cotton work, but unployment is high. St. clair hopes Congress will retain some of the Carter proposal's 1.4 million public service jobs -- which include such categories as day care assistants and companions for the elderly. "A lot of these mothers would be fine for this sort of work," he said.
St. Clair concurred with the critics about many of the weaknesses in the Mississippi welfare system. Local housing ordinances generally favor slumlords, not the tenants, he said, "We have no state-wide housing ordinance -- not even a statewide fire ordinance."
Mattie Mays looked around her shack and spoke of the routine she had to go through to live there. "My brother went to Chicago and I took this place over and the rent receipt was in his name. I had to send away to Chicago to have him say he wasn't still paying the rent. I couldn't get my stamps until I heard from him. We went a month without food stamps."
Mays added, "they ain't gonna believe you. You have to go in every three months. They gonna okay you. It's the same thing over and over again.They ask do you have a boyfriend? If he gives you any money? If you say yes, they say bring the money in to them and they will make a note of it. Then they let you know later and you have to go back to get it."
ST. CLAIR insisted that changes are slowly coming to Mississippi. Unused federal funds that used to be returned by the millions to Washington are currently paying for expermental crash courses for mothers and children, with dramatic results.
Children are in full-time day programs from the age of one. Their mothers, former welfare recipients, are now bank tellers and day care instructors. These trial programs take massive funding and individualized care, something state -- and in many cases national --
And the federally funded Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children (Known as WIC) is finally coming to Belzoni next September -- even though some state welfare workers testified, as improbable as it may seem, that there was no need for it. This pre-natal and post-natal care effort could help prevent the tiny premature babies of someone like Mattie Mays.
There will also be some local relief by this summer. Currently, a mother with three children receives $60 a month in state aid -- $30 for the first child, $18 for the second and $12 for the third or any additional children. This is the only state that pays nothing for the mother herself.) A bill has just been passed that would double this amount, beginning July 1. This addition is still low enough to do nothing to jeopardize Mississippi's status as the lowest welfare-paying state in the union.
Also by this summer or fall, the purchase price of food stamps will be eliminated nationally. Currently a family of four making $200 a month pays $53 up front for $174 in food stamps -- or a benefit of $121 in stamps. Under the new program they would receive the benefit amount in stamps outright without paying cash. Thousands more people, especially in the South, now eligible for food stamps would be able to get them if they no longer have to come up with the purchase price.
But there are many like Dr. Aaron Shirley who remain skeptical about the future of Mississippi's poor. He is highly critical of the local administrators who would have to run a program such as Carter's welfare proposal. "No matter how good it sounds on paper in Washington, if the people delivering the service are those now running the present system, the poor will be hurt. Most are just hostile to the intended recipient." Dr. Shirley remembers the little girl who died of worms last summer:
"After that little girl died, our clinic went out and built a privy and installed a 55-gallon barrel of water on that land. We got clean drinking water and got the other kids on the WIC program and helped comfort the mother in her grief. She was nearly destroyed. A few weeks later, our clinic social worker went out and couldn't find anybody. The state welfare folks put momma in jail for neglect and abuse and put the kids in foster care. God knows where they are. Here was a momma doing all she could. Everybody knows the symptoms for Ascaris worms -- a 'cold' and runny nose --are not the kind that would lead you to a hospital. Instead of reaching out to find these poor rural people with no privys and no water, the welfare answer is to punish the momma and take the children away.
"Sure, the ones who know enough to come to a clinic are better off now than they were before Medicaid. Sure, the ones who get their kids to Head Start are better off than when there was no Head Start. Sure, you're better off if you can fight the hassle and pay for food stamps.
"But heaven help you if you don't know what to do. For those kinds, there is just no one reaching out. There is just no caring."