Interrupting the Poverty Cycle: Looking Back to Move Forward in Mississippi | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Interrupting the Poverty Cycle: Looking Back to Move Forward in Mississippi

Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman (center) speaks to young people outside Madison S. Palmer High School in Marks, Miss., on July 12, 2017. Photo courtesy Rachel Fradette

Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman (center) speaks to young people outside Madison S. Palmer High School in Marks, Miss., on July 12, 2017. Photo courtesy Rachel Fradette

Otibehia Allen's days in the Mississippi Delta start and end with her five children—three boys and two girls. She feeds them. Clothes them. Their well-being rests on her shoulders. She does it all on her own.

It is hard for her to put into words what it is like to raise five children. It is even harder to discuss her fight for them.

"My greatest hope for my children is that they see I'm trying to have a better future," Allen said last summer, her eyes filled with tears. "I'm trying."

Allen lives in Jonestown, Miss., which sits in Coahoma County with a poverty level of 38 percent. Mississippi's three-year average poverty is 20.8 percent, which makes it the state with the highest poverty rate. In 2017, the state's population was 2,892,894; of those, 602,768 lived below the poverty threshold of $24,340 for a family of four.

The U.S. Census Bureau shows that poverty in Coahoma, 18 miles northeast of Clarksdale, is far above the national average of 12.7 percent. Even the poverty rate in the state's capital city, Jackson, is more than twice the national average at 30.7 percent.

Mississippi Delta counties—places where African Americans were first enslaved, then became poorly paid workers and sharecroppers—average a poverty level of 30 percent, and services and opportunities are even farther apart than in a city like Jackson—and food and shopping desserts can span the width of entire counties.

Coahoma County's average income per capita is just over $15,000.

Allen's story of generational poverty—inherited because it is so difficult to break due to long-time structural inequities embedded back when rich planters made Mississippi the wealthiest state in the union—is common in Delta counties. Her story and many others are what brought activist and Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman back to the Delta in July 2015 along with journalists she invited to hear the stories of Delta residents like Allen.

As tears streamed down her face, Otibehia Allen faced Edelman in the packed New Baptist Church in Jonestown on July 12, 2017, naming the stakes that she and her children face in the nation's poorest state.

"Do you want me to die?" she asked the congregation.

'Against the Law'?

People can miss Jonestown, Allen's current hometown, in a blink. The town's old roads connect even older houses and trailers. The businesses in town are limited. There is a post office, police department, a few local churches and an oil mill—which grinds oil out of seeds such as cottonseeds or peanuts.

It is a place that looks like both history and people passed it by—which arguably they did—and is similar to other Delta towns trying to get a more solid point on a map since their early 18th-century days of helping drive the state's, region's, and even nation's economic engines through cotton production and the use of free labor.

Fortunes in the Delta have shifted dramatically after many of the early white planter families sold out and moved on, leaving behind many poorer residents, especially African Americans, with few opportunities, a dearth of good jobs and poor educational quality.

In fact, civil-rights veteran Bob Moses, who helped launch Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1964 to help blacks get the right to vote here, calls the post-integration public schooling available to many African Americans a "sharecropper education." And that isn't a compliment; it's a symptom of the cyclical poverty that the Delta represents in full relief.

Research by the Pew Research Center found that a white household in Mississippi can easily have a net worth 13 times higher than those of black families. PBS reported in 2016 that the average median income for a black family in the Delta town of Cleveland is less than half the average for a white family.

This wealth disparity plays out in everyday lives and in inter-connecting ways. Allen cannot afford a car, so she pays $10 a day or as much as $20 to commute to and from work. Her job is 15 miles from Jonestown, a familiar situation for many people in the Mississippi Delta.

"That $50 I could use it if my son needs a new pair of shoes or we need some soap and tissue or I need to go to the washer; that's what makes it difficult," Allen said at the church.

Jonestown does not have a medical facility, clinic or grocery store.

"I can't get to where I need to go," Allen said. "Everything I need is in another city. I have to drive to get there."

Allen said the simple task of building a Dollar General in her town would change its citizens' current lives tremendously.

"I could just walk to the store and get what I need," Allen said. That's a concept many people do not have to consider in their everyday lives, she added.

The town's limited resources are a constant problem. "I have to worry about money. That wasn't something that I was fortunate enough to have, so you shouldn't penalize somebody else because they don't have what you have. That's discrimination. Isn't that against the law?"

Robert Kennedy's 'War'

Not enough has changed since Edelman helped get then-Sen. Robert F. Kennedy to come to Mississippi 50 years ago to face first-hand the poverty levels of the Delta and those in the worst condition: children. Then 27, she was an NAACP attorney based in Jackson and testified in Washington, D.C., to the Senate subcommittee on poverty, which included Kennedy. The help was not getting to the people who needed it more; more than 50,000 people were going hungry in the Delta, University of Mississippi journalism professor Ellen Meacham, the author of "Delta Epiphany: RFK in Mississippi," wrote in The New York Times last April.

Kennedy, the former U.S. attorney general, then visited three Delta counties in Mississippi in 1967 after her testimony to see for himself how well the federal "War on Poverty" was working in one of the nation's poorest states. With a poverty level of nearly 70 percent, the Delta was in crisis when he arrived. He met with many adults and children in the Delta, and came away believing not that government could not do everything itself, but that the best anti-poverty efforts engage and are informed by people living in poverty themselves.

"Instead, he envisioned businesses and charities working with government to provide jobs and strengthen poor neighborhoods in rural areas," Meacham wrote. Kennedy wanted collaboration combined with data that prove that the programs work—moving them far beyond mere hand-outs to becoming systemic approaches that can interrupt the cycle of poverty and what it breeds, such as crime, neighborhood decay and hopelessness.

Meacham mentioned several programs that used a systemic, data-driven model, starting with the early Bedford-Stuyvesant Renewal and Rehabilitation Corp., which Kennedy had helped create in New York in 1966.

The Delta Health Alliance was one result—working with private and public partners in 18 Delta counties to improve health-care options. Edelman's Children's Defend Fund is another bright example—a data-driven collaborative effort to interrupt the cycles for children in poverty.

Still, the Ole Miss professor wrote, in the three poverty-stricken counties Kennedy visited, poverty rates for minor children are around 50 percent now. Not enough consistent effort has yet broken the cycle for too many families, and the State of Mississippi, as well as the newest presidential administration, are weakening the safety net that can help create bootstraps for poor Mississippians to pull on.

Notably, the programs that are working, Meacham writes, use the model that Kennedy and Edelman embraced then.

"If he returned to the Delta today, Mr. Kennedy would cheer the advances but be dismayed at how hard advocates must fight to maintain that limited progress," Meacham wrote of Kennedy.

'We Have No Jobs'

When Marian Wright—she wasn't married, yet—first arrived in Jackson, Miss., during spring break 1961, local NAACP leader Medgar Evers picked her up at the airport. She had dinner with Evers and his wife, Myrlie, and their children. He then drove her 95 miles north to Greenwood. She didn't know anyone in the Delta, and there were only four black lawyers in the entire state.

But she had a job to do then, and now. "Movements are built from the ground up," Edelman said in July. "We are the leaders."

In Edelman's return to the Mississippi Delta this time, she wanted to once again bring the conversation of both its progress and the long road still ahead to the forefront as Kennedy had helped do then. Her main fear, she said, was the Trump administration's cuts to social services, which are too often framed as a way to clean up waste by people too lazy to do for themselves.

"America is going to miss the boat," Edelman said in July about children's education and health.

Poverty in the Delta is not as high as it was during the 1967 Delta Poverty Tour, but more hard work is needed, Edelman emphasized, and with programs that bring systemic change over time.

"We are still working hard to improve the economy for socially, economically disadvantaged," Mississippi Delta Council Executive Director Don Green said in July. "We have been working very hard to improve life here in the Delta."

Green said Coahoma County had a poverty level of about 50 percent as far back as 1989. It now sits at 41.8 percent, a slight decrease.

"We've reached that hard spot," Green said. "We're trying to get it (poverty level) lower than that 35 percent."

Green said some of the current programs are bringing progress, but the struggle will be reducing the current poverty level of each of the counties, which range from about 30 to 35 percent.

Glendora, a small village in Tallahatchie County, is home to the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center.

"On these grounds, here is where he (Emmett Till) was initially beaten and almost killed," Glendora's mayor of 35 years, Johnny B. Thomas, said in July. "So we call it 'Ground Zero.'"

White adult men murdered the 14-year-old Till 18 miles away in Money, Miss., but Thomas said the premeditation took place in Glendora, where one of the boy's killers, J.W. Milam, lived.

"It's here in Glendora where we say that we are the beginning to modern civil rights," Thomas said.

"Our museum is the beginning of the healing," he added.

The historical draw of the town does not hide the financial burden of its residents. More than 40 percent of the 161 residents in Glendora live below the poverty level. Thomas says the root problem is jobs for residents. The town of Glendora employees offer only four part-time jobs, the only jobs in town, he said.

"We have no jobs," Thomas said. "The job here are four hours round-trip."

The main job prospects for Glendora people are either in Washington County at a catfish factory or in a casino in Tunica. Both trips are one to two hours away.

Thomas said the town no longer has the grass and agricultural stability to grow cotton, a job he once had.

"We are 99.99 percent low-wealth," Thomas said. "We won't say 'impoverished' anymore because we have hope in all of the young folks we've got here."

In the town, the grass is high and unkempt with a limited number of small houses surrounding the museum. Thomas said someday Glendora will be where it needs to be, though.

"This community should be a picture," Thomas said.

"We will make it a picture."

Hope and Dissatisfaction

Access is a major problem in the Delta counties, whether it is to health care or a convenience store or opportunity.

Glendora residents once went as far as an hour away for toilet paper and other basic necessities, but the town now has a grocery store.

"We have been without," Thomas said during the July Delta tour.

Amelioration of poverty in the Delta, and much of Mississippi, moves slowly. In September, the U.S. Census Bureau released new data showing that Mississippi holds the highest rate of income inequality and poverty in the country. It shows that more than 50 years after Kennedy's initial tour here that upward of 20 percent of Mississippians still live in poverty. The towns of Glendora, Jonestown, Marks and most Delta counties have a poverty level of 35 to 40 percent, sometimes higher.

"We don't just want to show it off," Oleta Fitzgerald, the director of the Children's Defense Fund's Southern Regional Office, said in July. "We want to show that there's still work to do 50 years after the Kennedy site visit."

Access to quality health care is a primary block to progress—especially for poor children in the wake of the federal delay on continuing the Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, which could expire in 2018. CHIP covers 9 million children in the U.S. whose parents do not qualify for Medicaid. In September, Congress failed to reauthorize CHIP, and the program has yet to be reconciled in Washington. More than 43 percent of Mississippi children rely on Medicaid, an analysis of census data from Georgetown University Center for Children and Families shows.

In the three Delta counties Edelman visited—Tallahatchie, Coahoma and Quitman—more than 55 percent of the children are on Medicaid or CHIP, the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families showed, based on U.S. Census data. Seventy-four percent of children in Quitman County are on Medicaid or CHIP.

"Ninety-five percent of all children today are now covered by either CHIP and Medicaid," Edelman said in July.

Even if CHIP survives, Mississippi kids' caretakers cannot always stay well enough to work and care for them well. Allen, for instance, does not qualify for Medicaid, but her children do. "If I get sick, then I can't go to the doctor because I can't pay for it," Allen said.

Delta residents desperately hope these conditions will change. "We are already at the bottom. I don't know how we can go any further," Thomas said. "Hopefully, he (President Trump) will change the situation. I'm hopeful."

They also want more people surrounding them to open their eyes and pay attention.

"I want people to know that there are small towns and other cities that need help," Allen said. "I want everybody to reach out in any way that they can, even just by listening to the stories."

The main thing, retired Mississippi Rep. Robert Clark said, is to avoid complacency and use the dissatisfaction to demand change.

"If you look at the statistics, you will see where Mississippi, particularly the Delta, stands, and I am not satisfied," Clark told journalists in July.

"We've got to look at where we are and see where we go from here."

Read and comment at jfp.ms/poverty.

Disrupting Poverty: 5 Points

A Disrupting Poverty Conference in Boston highlighted five points that not all may consider to help people achieve self-sufficiency:

  1. "Poverty is more complicated than it used to be." "A high school diploma, a resume and a reference," isn't enough, the San Francisco Foundation wrote about escaping poverty, and entry-level jobs pay much less than they did previously. "Getting out of poverty requires education beyond a high school degree, a job that pays a living wage, a supportive peer or family network, and enough assets to have a cushion to fall back on."
  2. "Poverty is 'sticky.'" That is, poverty is often generational and passed down; children in poverty are likely to be adults in poverty. "Breaking poverty cycles takes time, persistence, dogged engagement, and relentless outreach. ... It has to occur in the context of everything going on in our lives—safe and stable housing, individual and family well-being, higher education, competitive job skills, financial capability and a strong network of support to rely on."
  3. Needed: prep, tools for "high-demand, high stress jobs." "[H]holding a job in today's environment means a person needs to be able to multi-task, manage multiple priorities, and make many high-stakes choices throughout the day. It is virtually impossible for a family to get ahead in any one critical area if other areas are unstable."
  4. Brain science can help "executive function." "The executive function capabilities allow us to multi-task, organize a set of steps, control our inhibitions, and keep the goal in mind, even under pressure. Under extreme and pervasive emotional stress, resulting from living in poverty and in violent communities, executive functions are compromised, and impulses are extremely difficult to control. It's harder to calm down; dealing with authority feels threatening; maintaining confidence is challenging; and being resilient to make myriad decision necessary to hold jobs and keep families together feels impossible." But modern brain scene shows that the brain's "plasticity" can help build executive function "required to solve complex problems and set goals necessary to successfully manage their lives."
  5. Essential: "peer network and a supportive community" "Engaging with peers through productive and supportive community-led activities, such as social events, learning circles, support groups, and healthy activities, promotes healthy living, provides emotional support, builds trust, creates social cohesion, builds leaders, and encourages positive engagement in the community. Communities support individuals to stay on track with their goals, which is necessary component of moving out of poverty and achieving self-sufficiency."

Read full post by the San Francisco Foundation at jfp.ms/poverty.

ANSWER to "Poverty: Causes and Effects"

Pat yourself on your back if you circled and drew Xs through every item on the list. In the complicated cycle of generational poverty, research shows that the causes of poverty is also an effect, and vice versa. It's circular: This means that to interrupt the cycle of poverty, we need to tackle all spokes at once. Where do you fit, and what can you do to help? Please pledge an immediate action here or at jfp.ms/poverty.

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