Graduating, but to what?
Poor students in the Deep South who successfully navigate traumas at home and dysfunction at school find few opportunities afterward
In Drew, Miss.
The day of his high school graduation, like so many of the days before, began with chaos. Ruleville Central had pledged to lock its front doors an hour before the ceremony to prevent a crowd overflow, and Jadareous Davis was still at his grandmother’s home six miles up the road, time slipping away. Davis scanned through his mental checklist. Shoes? His older brother hadn’t yet swung by to drop off a pair. Bow tie? Maybe he could borrow one from a neighbor. Pants? Davis wasn’t even sure whether the dress code mandated black or brown, and he called a friend for help.
“Hey, what color pants we supposed to be wearing?” he said over the phone.
His grandmother’s voice blared from the other room.
Above: Jadareous Davis puts on his cap and gown in a classroom at Ruleville Central High School in Ruleville, Miss., before the graduation ceremony in May. Davis and other graduates of poor-performing schools in Deep South states often find themselves hunting for low-paying jobs.
“Quarter after nine!” she said. “C’mon, fellas! I don’t want to be locked out.”
Davis, 19, was about to graduate from one of the poorest-performing schools in a region of America that offers the bleakest landscape for the young, and the moment came with equal parts excitement and dread: As he entered adulthood, there was no telling when or how all the combustible parts of his life might now blow up.
Davis’s senior year had doubled as a reminder about all the hazards. He barely had a stable place to live and had moved months earlier to the far edge of town, taking over a dim unit paid for by his aunt after he grew sick of sleeping on a love seat at his grandmother’s cramped place. Davis had little family support; he’d fought with his mother so furiously several years back, his solution now was to simply not see her. He also was graduating with a debt — $1,200, the fine for driving his aunt’s car without insurance and then skipping a court date.
Toughest of all, graduation meant stepping into a place providing few examples of something better. His street in Drew consisted of a rusting cotton gin and a row of boarded-up storefronts. His neighborhood had a thriving drug trade that took place near an abandoned building with “For Colored” painted atop a doorway. His county had a poverty rate nearly three times the national average, at 36 percent. His state had the lowest median income in the nation and the second-highest incarceration rates. He could drive for two hours in any direction without finding a local jobless rate resembling anything near the national average.
The Deep South’s paralyzing intergenerational poverty is the devastating sum of problems both historical and emergent — ones that, in the life of a young man, can build in childhood and then erupt in early adulthood. Students such as Davis deal with traumas at home and dysfunction at school — only to find themselves, as graduates, searching for low-paying jobs in states that have been reluctant to fund programs that help the poor. That cycle carries implications not only for the current generation, but also for the ones to come, and holds back a region that has fallen further behind the rest of the nation.
Davis had spent his high school years at Ruleville Central, a one-story, red-brick building built in 1958, where the clocks don’t work and where 55 percent graduate on time, according to state data, well below the state rate of 76 percent. Administrators there had said a day earlier that everything would lock down at nine sharp — part of enforcing the fire-safety code in a too-small gym. But Davis figured the school would play loose with the rules. So even though he was running late, he pulled a white shirt and a billowy pair of black slacks from the closet and started ironing as the minutes passed.
“Boy, you knew yesterday you had to have black slacks and black shoes,” his grandmother Nettie Davis said at 9:20 a.m.
“I didn’t know!” he said.
“Why are you ironing, Bae Bae?” she asked, using a nickname. “Ain’t nobody going to see that shirt.”
Some 15 minutes later, Davis was ready to go. His grandmother and aunt, tired of waiting, had already headed for the gymnasium in a separate car. Davis darted into a cousin’s vehicle, hit the gas and thought about how much easier this would be if he’d simply slept at his grandmother’s house — his home before his aunt and her newborn moved in and it became too crowded.
When he swung into the Ruleville student parking lot at 9:48 a.m., 12 minutes before the ceremony was to start, several non-graduates who’d been milling around spotted him in the lot and rushed toward him.
“The police locked the doors!” one said, nearly out of breath.
Davis sprinted toward a back entrance to the gymnasium, dress shoes crunching gravel, as the others followed. An officer spotted the commotion and cracked the door for him to slip inside.
“Thank you,” Davis gulped.
But now he was in a packed gym wondering whether his family had made it. He tried to tune out the band music, and his eyes skipped across the bleachers, scanning for his grandmother and aunt. One side: Not there. The other: Not there. Folding chairs: Nowhere.
Davis pushed his way through the gym, into the hallway and toward the front entrance to the school — and only then did he lock eyes with his grandmother. She was outside, pressed against the small window of the front double door, the first in a group of 120 who had arrived too late and were now begging to be let in.
“Fire code,” one officer explained, quietly, as he turned his back to the crowd. “We can’t make any exceptions.”
“That’s my grandma!” Davis barked.
“Bae!” Davis’s grandmother said from the outside. She smacked the window. “Bae!”
Davis paced off and came back. The officer wouldn’t negotiate. Davis’s family was trapped outside and would remain there.
“Bulls—,” Davis said, and he was wearing his cap and gown, tassel hanging, as he took one final look at his grandmother through the window. “Bulls—,” he said again, and he turned back into the gym to graduate.
The 86 members of Ruleville Central’s senior class had attended a school given an F grade by the state. Nearly everybody qualified for government-provided lunches. The school was so strapped for teachers that in 2014 it brought in seven from India — during the middle of the year — to instruct math and science classes.
And then, with graduation, those students walked out the door.
Some new graduates went off to local colleges. Others lacked money or test scores. One turned down an offer from his dream school — the University of Mississippi — because of the cost. Another who had bragged about an awaiting football scholarship ended up working at a truck stop. The school’s guidance counselor said she can count on her hand the ones who will finish college.
Here in the Deep South, poverty perpetuates from generation to generation like in no other region of the country, data shows, and the obstacles that hold back new high school graduates shine a light on a vast economic struggle that differs in its expansiveness from the concentrated problems seen in urban hubs.
In recent years, shriveling job prospects for the high-school-educated and scant state support for the poor have combined with the Deep South’s more timeworn problems — single-parenthood and under-education — to diminish the chances of a middle-class life for somebody born into poverty. In Mississippi, if high school graduates don’t advance to college, they have a 77 percent chance, compared with 67 percent nationally, that their children will grow up poor, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty. Such odds, which have been rising since 2008, represent the steepest in the nation, and Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia (along with Arkansas and New Mexico) are just behind.
Poverty rates in the South spiked higher in the aftermath of the recession and have been far slower to recover, rising to levels last seen three decades ago. And the young have endured the brunt of the pain. In 2000, the states of the Deep South — Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina — all had child poverty rates worse than the national average, but they were spread loosely among the bottom half on a list of all states. Now, those five states have sunk to the bottom.
What went wrong with the Deep South?
Five states in the South are much worse off on economic and social measures than the majority of the country.
Here’s how the region compares, broken down by county.
Male life expectancy, by county
Worst fifth (64 to 72 years)
Best fifth (77 to 82 years)
The region is home to some of the lowest life expectancies for both men and women. In many counties of the Mississippi Delta, the average male dies before 70.
Source: Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington
Children living with one parent, by county
Worst fifth (40 to 100% of children)
Best fifth (Less than 24%)
The nation has 548 counties where more than 40 percent of children live in single-parent homes. Of those, 238 are in the Deep South.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
Households without bank accounts, by county
Worst fifth (12 to 37% of households)
Best fifth (Less than 5%)
Ten of 30 counties with the highest concentration of households with no bank accounts are in Mississippi.
Source: Corporation for Enterprise Development
Median household income, by county
Worst fifth (Less than $36,713)
Best fifth (More than $53,076)
Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina — all with typical incomes below $45,000 — are among the worst states. The national median is $52,250.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
Upward mobility for poor children, by county
In the region, children who grow up in a poor home are less likely to climb the income ladder as adults. Among the 50 counties that rank worst, 29 are in the Deep South.
Source: The Equality of Opportunity Project
Experts say that these troubles stem from the region’s difficulty adapting to an increasingly technology-based economy that has displaced traditional blue-collar jobs and put a premium on high-skill positions. The states of the Deep South have also declined to put in place policies that might help the young and their struggling parents — opting against expanding Medicaid, the health program for the poor, while carrying out some of the nation’s sharpest cuts in education spending.
“Overall, these are not places that have invested in the basic economic security that families need for their children to thrive,” said Patrick McCarthy, the president and chief executive of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a charity that deals with disadvantaged youth.
The high school just south of Ruleville uses a building that lacks air conditioning or heat and where urine backs up in the piping and wafts into the hallways. The biggest district in the region gets by with 15-year-old buses, 28-student classrooms and six nurses for 6,000 students.
“Education is the gatekeeper,” said Mike Sayer, co-founder of Jackson, Miss.-based Southern Echo, a community group focusing on African American opportunity. “The effort to provide programs for the students most in need are being suffocated.”
Class and race still correlate closely in the South, where African American populations are the highest in the nation. In Mississippi, for instance, black children are three times likelier than whites to grow up poor, three times likelier to live with single parents, more than twice as likely to lack basic reading skills by fourth grade, and twice as likely to drop out.
Ruleville Central seniors use their phones as mirrors or for taking selfies ahead of a practice ceremony the night before graduation in May. The Mississippi school graduates only 55 percent of its students on time.
In 24 of the 40 Mississippi districts to receive a D or F grade from the state, African Americans make up at least 95 percent of the student body.
In Sunflower County, where Ruleville is one of two nearly all-black public schools, the differences in opportunity are particularly pronounced. Davis’s graduating class had one white student — even though the county is 30 percent white. White students, instead, tend to enroll at North Sunflower Academy, a small private school where two Confederate flags — painted on a tool shed and the football field press box — greet visitors at the entrance.
At Ruleville, Davis had talked often about dropping out. He hadn’t bothered to take standardized tests. He’d sometimes walk out of school midday, or retreat to the gym and shoot hoops. He was occasionally suspended, and some teachers said he’d dodged expulsion only because of his status as the best player on a bad basketball team. He was a “ticking time bomb,” his coach said.
In the last months of his senior year, he’d twice been pulled over for speeding — both times in his aunt’s car. The tickets were initially manageable, but then Davis skipped his payment date and a court date and the fines ballooned. He received a notice soon after graduation that his license had been suspended.
Still, he had made it. Just days after he graduated, as his friends talked about college, Davis updated the education status on his Facebook profile. “East Mississippi Community College,” he wrote, even though nothing was finalized. There, he hoped, he would take a commercial-truck-driving course and earn a license to operate an 18-wheeler and “see America,” as his grandfather had done.
Before he could go to college and drive a truck, Davis needed to get his license back. So, thanks to a local nonprofit group, he got a $10-an-hour summer job pulling weeds and checking water meters for the town of Drew, just north of Ruleville. But on the first day, Davis showed up 45 minutes late. He was 30 minutes late on Day 2. Several weeks later, Davis retreated into the Drew police station to wait out an early-afternoon rainstorm. He sat in a chair and fell asleep. When his boss, town Police Chief Terry Tyler, walked into the office, Tyler fired him.
“I explained that to him: ‘You’re a good kid. Got great potential,’ ” Tyler said. “But I want to work with kids who actually want a future, not be insubordinate.”
Davis reeled. He retreated for a weekend to his two-bedroom unit, where laundry was piled in the spare bedroom and his diploma sat by the TV, and didn’t come out for three days. He ignored calls from friends and relatives. He pulled on earphones and played video games. How could he drive a truck if he couldn’t even drive a car? How could he reinstate his license if he didn’t have a job to pay the fine?
“I realized I was just stuck,” Davis said.
After ignoring people for days, Davis called a friend and suggested they go job-hunting together. They aimed at the first place they could think of: one of the only factories in Ruleville, a small company that refurbished plastic bags. The factory, its walls and floors often covered in white powder, had a rough reputation. But it was also known as a place that hires most who show up.
“Everybody who works there, their whole body be white,” Davis said.
With no appointment, Davis arrived at the factory with his friend, De’Sean Willis, and a worker emerged from the white cloud to greet them.
“You here to see somebody?” the man asked.
He ushered them into an office room right off the manufacturing floor, and there, too, everything was caked in white TiO2, titanium dioxide, as they were told, a powder used in plastics. The room had an old telephone, a paper shredder, a filing drawer for “Vacation Request” forms, and a poster reading, “Teamwork.” Davis, wearing canvas shorts and a LeBron James Nike shirt, sank into a dusty armchair, creating a poof of white, and filled out an application.
“What are you saying here?” Davis asked Willis, when he came to the part about education.
“Just say what you did,” Willis shrugged.
And so he did.
Did you graduate? Yes.
School? Ruleville Central.
A manager, Edward Leak, walked into the office and peppered them with a few questions. He stood while talking.
Davis said anything would do.
Leak braced for a second and glanced at the young men before him. Neither had stood when he entered; neither seemed talkative; neither had questions for him. He pressed Davis further.
“And what about your future?” Leak said. “College?”
Davis paused before providing an answer he no longer believed. “East Mississippi,” he said. “In December.”
Jadareous Davis sits in his aunt's apartment in Drew. He had wanted to become a truck driver, but his license had been suspended after he failed to pay a fine. Initial attempts to find a job left him frustrated.
Davis pictured his town and his region as a trap of part-time and short-lived jobs because his family members were among those who’d gotten stuck. One of his aunts had a criminal justice degree that turned into a $9.75-an-hour job at a nearby prison. Another aunt had spent a few years in prison on aggravated assault charges, earned a cosmetology certificate while behind bars and came out with a two-day-a-week job cutting hair at a nursing home. Even his grandfather’s comforts were fleeting; he, too, had been in prison as a young man for drug trafficking, and he battled with various cancers over 20 years as he tried to stay behind the wheel.
For Davis, living on the fringes of poverty required a near-daily calculus about how to get by. “I try to hide my thoughts,” Davis said. When his family decided it couldn’t afford a graduation party, Davis didn’t complain. When he didn’t have money for a prom ticket, he quietly asked an older friend in the community for $40. When his family took a quick summer trip to the Mississippi coast — a rare getaway — he decided to stay back in Drew. In this case, his family was going to visit his mother. He wanted no part.
If anything could set Davis off, it was the thought of his mother.
She was 21 when she had him. She was in cosmetology school at the time, with no income. She met his dad at a nightclub, and they were briefly together until she found out that other women were in the picture. Relatives said she wasn’t ready, and so her mother took Jadareous home from the hospital. Tyarra Davis felt scorned and embarrassed, and for years, living farther south in Biloxi, she slipped in and out of his life.
When Davis hit ninth grade, Tyarra tried to move back in with the family. Davis made no attempt to hide his fury. One morning, the family was late for church and Davis was drying his clothing. His mother urged him to hustle. Davis tried to ignore her; who was she to play mother, he recalled thinking. So he stood by the dryer and looked at his clothing. Then Tyarra came at him with a cord, he said.
“So I grabbed her,” he said.
The two yelled. They locked arms. They traded punches.
Tyarra felt Davis — already above 6 foot at the time — couldn’t be calmed. He chased her into several bedrooms, through the kitchen and eventually into the front yard. The fight lasted several minutes. At some point, a call was made to the police; Davis said his mother made the call, but Tyarra said a neighbor did.
“All I remember, we were on top of each other and the police pulled up,” Tyarra said in an interview from Biloxi, where she again lives. “It was basically on him. They took him.”
The police kept Davis for several hours.
Davis never tried to explain himself.
“I just stayed quiet and rode down to the station,” he said. “They wouldn’t understand.”
In the years that followed, Tyarra all but cut off contact with her son, even as she found a decent job working security with the Mississippi Department of Labor. “He’s not at a stage in his life where I can talk to him,” she said.
He feels a similar distance. “On her Facebook profile, she don’t even say she has kids,” Davis said.
Davis stayed jobless for weeks. Some days he talked about the Army. Some days he inquired about jobs. One day he grew frantic enough that he took a risk: He called a friend and asked to borrow his car. Even though he didn’t have a license.
Davis drove around the region, stopping anywhere that looked promising. A health center. A burger joint. He filled out applications. And when he dropped off the car at the truck stop where his friend worked, he met his friend’s boss, who told him about a program in Nashville.
Lincoln Tech, it was called, and it taught diesel mechanics.
Davis applied online that night.
Days later, responding to that application, a recruiter drove across the region for a visit, and they all met at Nettie’s house. They spread around the kitchen counter, right under a wall taped with President Obama magazine covers, and Robert Black plugged in his laptop, talking about a one-year program, the hands-on training, the job placement, and he also tried to disavow Davis of the image of a state school with a big quad. Lincoln Tech had a campus, but it was mostly a series of garages. The place was situated along a commercial, fast-food pike. The students wore mechanics’ uniforms. Dorms were available, but basic. The training was practical. You’d get a certificate, not a degree.
“Does that sound like something you’d be interested in?” Black recalled asking Davis.
“Yessir,” Davis said. “I don’t need English. I don’t need math. Just training.”
After so many dead ends, Davis strained to believe his luck: Here was a place that would take him. He quickly told himself that he’d be happy working on trucks rather than driving them. He researched the average pay for diesel mechanics — $42,000 per year. “Real money,” he said. He took a Wonderlic intelligence test, one of Lincoln’s prerequisites. To cover the costs, he took out two loans, one with the federal government under his aunt’s name and a smaller one directly from the school. The total cost: $30,000.
Shana warned Davis that he needed to finish school to make the investment worthwhile; otherwise she would default and her own daughter might one day be denied access to loans. Davis agreed.
“I was scared of staying in Mississippi,” Davis said.
He had virtually no money to cover his expenses, so he pledged himself in Nashville to work 16-hour days: eight hours as a student and eight hours in a job — perhaps a late-afternoon shift at McDonald’s. Just to get to Nashville, Davis needed new, stiff, dark jeans, steel-toed boots, bedsheets and a comforter. So Nettie asked for several hundred dollars in donations from relatives and pulled as much as she could from her Social Security check. In September, as Davis headed to school, she cut back on groceries and didn’t pay her phone bill.
The morning of the first class, which began at 6:40 a.m., Davis pulled himself out of bed in a cinder block dorm room where Capri Suns were under the bed and a Black & Decker iron sat on the desk. He put on one of his five school-issued work uniforms and walked quietly into a windowless classroom, a place where he’d learn the basics for several weeks before moving into the garage. On the wall, a poster was titled “Picture Perfect Wheel Alignment,” and the whiteboard read, “Mr. Bullock, 102.”
There were 29 people in the classroom, all but one of them men. They were ordered to take off their hats and to put away their cellphones.
“One of the things we’re going to do is a little self-introduction,” Mr. Bullock said. “Anyone want to volunteer first?”
Students stood and talked about themselves.
One was from West Tennessee.
Another from Franklin, W.Va.
One had served in the Air Force.
Several said they had worked in body shops.
It was Davis’s turn. He had a seat in the first row of the classroom, at a metal workbench. He stood and turned around.
“I’m Jadareous Davis,” he said. “From Drew, Mississippi. I’m here for diesel.”