An opportunity gamed away
For a county in the Deep South that reaped millions from casino business, poverty is still its spin of the wheel
Her one-story house was slumping inch by inch, day by day, into the wet ground of the Mississippi Delta. Rot climbed up the wooden beams and mildew crept across the ceiling. Soft spots spread across the damp and buckling plywood floor. Holes opened up that led straight to the soil.
Linda Fay Engle-Harris, 60, had always tried to manage on her own, and so when she found new openings in the floor, she crumpled paper into tight wads and jammed them into the gaps. When she awoke to find slugs oozing across her living room, she fetched a dustpan, opened the front door and gently ushered them back into what she called “their natural ecosystem.” One night, when she grew particularly panicked about the future of her home, she handwrote four pages in a notebook left over from her teaching days, trying to gather her thoughts.
“My biggest fear,” she wrote, “is that our house will collapse.”
For two decades, ever since her county of plantations and shotgun shacks had struck it
rich, she’d been awaiting the prosperity. Great jobs for all, she’d imagined. Improved living standards. Perhaps no place in America’s Deep South had ever received a better chance to create new economic opportunities for its people. Starting in the early 1990s, Tunica had become a neon-lit casino destination. The county had since raked in $760 million, a fortune for a county with 10,000 people.
But as she worried about her house, Engle-Harris — like many in Tunica — was beginning to sense that the greatest windfall in the history of the rural South had failed to lift up a community where many African Americans still lived in crumbling, shacklike homes.
Despite all the casino money, a county that ranked in the 1980s among the nation’s poorest today had one of Mississippi’s highest unemployment rates. A county lashed 30 years ago in a CBS News “60 Minutes” segment for its “apartheid” schools still had a mostly white private academy and a public school system that was 97 percent black and was given a “D” grade by the state. A county that the Rev. Jesse Jackson once described as “America’s Ethiopia” had changed little in its poorest neighborhoods, even as riverfront casinos and other lavish development had sprouted up along the farmland hugging the Mississippi River.
Tunica’s strike-it-rich narrative is a rarity in the Deep South. But the disappointing way it played out shows how fundamental — and possibly intractable — the problems are in an area that lags behind the rest of the country as the poorest region with the least economic opportunity. A major study last year on upward mobility, measuring a poor child’s chances of climbing the economic ladder, found that Tunica had less opportunity than all but six other counties in the United States — scattered across Alaska, South Dakota and Virginia. The Deep South itself is home to more than half of the most punishing counties.
It is a downbeat reality for a region that for much of the second half of the 20th century was closing its gap with the rest of the country, helped by the federal war on poverty and the end of legalized segregation. But during the past 15 years — and particularly since the Great Recession — the catch-up has stalled. By some measures, it has reversed. Somebody born today in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia or South Carolina is far more likely than someone born elsewhere in the United States to attend a poorer school, drop out before high school, work a low-paying job, struggle with debt, go to prison and die young, according to national health, labor and education statistics.
Hundreds of years of segregation are now creating a “very hard-to-break pattern of human behavior and economic relations,” said Robert C. Lieberman, the provost at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University and an authority on race in America.
But the troubles in the Deep South go well beyond race to include frayed state finances, which have eroded the safety net for the poor, as well as public school underfunding, which leaves those who can afford it scrambling to private schools. And it extends to a growing technological divide that has left significant rural areas without access to the digital world; a rise in single parenthood, which is a major indicator for generation-to-generation poverty; and the decline of rural job opportunities in states that have long relied on agriculture rather than on urban hubs.
What went wrong in Tunica is a matter of perspective. For many African Americans — and the county’s current officials— it was a story of a largely white political leadership that did not grasp the depths of poverty facing many black residents and did not choose to use in an equitable way the casino revenue that flowed into the county. So instead of funding skills training and providing programs for the vulnerable, county officials poured money into a riverfront wedding hall, an Olympic-size indoor swimming pool and a golf course designed by a former PGA Tour pro — all while implementing a massive tax cut that primarily benefited the wealthy.
“It is a success story for those in the right social circle,” said Engle-Harris, who is black, echoing the perspectives of many African Americans interviewed here.
To the political leadership that developed the casino plans and spent that money, however, the story is one of good intentions gone awry, an attempt to boost an industry that could potentially create jobs in a corner of the country that never had much of an economy or hope for the future.
Whatever the intentions, the results have left Tunica and, more specifically, some of its residents, in an economically dangerous place.
Of the hundreds of millions of dollars that Tunica earned from its gambling venues between 1993 and 2015, just a sliver — about 2.5 percent, according to county records — was used on social programs to help the poor. In the largest of those programs, the county chose a selection of low-income senior citizens for major home renovations: Those living in the worst conditions would get $25,000 for repairs; or, if the house proved too dilapidated, a new mobile home.
Until recently, Engle-Harris hadn’t considered the program. As her home fell apart, she dived into her own savings — built up over years as a public school teacher — to pay for the repairs herself. But then, nearly $20,000 was gone, used to pay for new flooring, a new roof and shingles, new linoleum in the bathroom. Engle-Harris had $1,400 left in the bank and was forced to retire from her middle school teaching job last December when old hip pain grew to be excruciating. She earned $733 per month in disability pay, and even if she wanted to use it for home repairs, she couldn’t; a contractor visited in January and refused the work, calling it pointless.
“You need to knock this thing down,” she recalled him telling her.
Engle-Harris had long considered herself to be what she called a “self-dependent” achiever. She grew up in this very house, went to college, got a master’s degree— all while hobbling around on a left leg that wouldn’t bend properly, the result of a childhood bike accident. But Engle-Harris was beginning to question whether she could halt what she said was a slide from the middle class into poverty. “I’m terrified,” she said.
Engle-Harris thought she had a case to receive county housing support because, she said, the county was partly responsible for the problem. When it paved all the roads, it did not grade them. So the roads rose well above the lawns. Every time it rained, water rolled off the asphalt and toward the houses, collecting under flimsy porches. The neighborhood’s drainage system was overloaded and barely functioning, and Engle-Harris, like many of her neighbors, was living atop a manmade bog.
“It’s like quicksand under the house,” she said. She called the money she’d spent on repair work “a small bandage on a large wound.”
So one Tuesday in mid-January, she drove to the county administrative building and found the housing office.
“I am out of money,” she recalled saying, “and I need help.”
In the years just before gambling, Tunica looked much as it did a century earlier — one of the most preserved places in the Deep South. A few dozen white families owned nearly all the land. Blacks took meager jobs on cotton and soybean farms. The poverty rate was 56 percent, extreme even by the standards of the Mississippi Delta.
A CBS “60 Minutes” segment, filmed in Tunica in 1985, depicted a county with near-total racial separation. African Americans lived in homes that lacked running water. Whites lived just blocks away in comfort. They prayed in separate places, learned in separate places and spoke of the other race as if it was a competing team. The white Tunica public superintendent sent his own kids to private school. “Apartheid without passed laws or barbed wire,” CBS correspondent Morley Safer called it. “It is as if there was no Little Rock, there was no Selma.”
Tunica’s leaders pitched the advent of casinos in 1992 as a means of progress. “Everyone in Tunica County who wants a job, regardless of their education or skill level, can have one,” Kenneth Murphree, then the county’s administrator, said in 1998.
Encouraged largely by Mississippi’s relaxed casino taxes, the slots and blackjack tables moved in fast. Faux Western saloons and medieval castles rose along the river. Land prices in some areas spiked 100-fold. “One of America’s success stories,” the county called itself in promotional pamphlets. At the height of Tunica’s boom, there were nine casinos; it was the country’s third-largest gambling destination, behind Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
And then, the boom was over. First, new competing casinos popped up across the region. Then, the economic crisis caused millions of Americans to pull back on leisure spending. A 2011 report by a consulting firm called it a “perfect storm.” Visitors plummeted, with the largest casino, Harrah’s, shutting down last year, resulting in a loss of 1,300 jobs.
The county is now facing its own financial problems, pinched by declining gaming revenue, and many in Tunica fear that a massive opportunity has been squandered. Reams of county records and other data going back two decades, coupled with interviews with dozens of longtime residents, as well as past and current leaders, show how Tunica struggled to use the windfall in a way that produced sustainable benefits for more of its residents.
Almost nobody second-guesses the decision to welcome casinos, but many residents and current leaders criticize the use of the money generated. They say that it was, at least in part, misspent, used to nurture a tourism industry that is now sliding backward. Poverty experts who have studied the county say the government would have been better off trying to foster broader economic growth by paying greater attention to job training, building skills and trying to recruit betterpaying industries.
Tunica’s leaders “didn’t do a good job in building opportunity for those who were vulnerable,” said Cynthia “Mil” Duncan, an expert on poverty at the University of New Hampshire who has extensively studied the Deep South.
The Tunica of today physically looks much like other areas in the downtrodden Delta — but with a jarring collection of half-used tourist sites and an airport built to handle 737s that hasn’t serviced a major carrier since 2011. Tunica’s 30 percent poverty rate, compared with the pre-casino days, shows substantial improvement but is on par with the most troubled places in the country — and twice the national average, according to Census data. Many of Tunica’s residents remain in dire shape. The public high school has a 57 percent graduation rate, compared with 79 percent nationally. One in four people don’t have bank accounts, one of the highest rates in the country. The average life span in Tunica, at 67 for men and 73 for women, remains shorter than nearly anywhere else in the United States — or El Salvador, for that matter.
“If I get sick and it’s 11 p.m. at night, I have to drive 45 miles” to get medicine, said Larry Braziel, a 15-year member of the Tunica school board and a slot machine technician at Bally’s Tunica casino. “It’s absurd.”
For many residents in Tunica, the initial boom opened a path toward a job. The casinos initially over-hired, and Tunica, for amatter of months, was so awash in jobs that its unemployment rate fell to 4 percent. But the jobless rate didn’t stay low long enough to further pull down the poverty rate. For those laid off, there were few places to turn. The jobless rate averaged 12.3 percent last year.
One of Tunica’s most controversial moves came at the beginning of the boom, when the new casinos hugging the Mississippi River rapidly started to generate millions of dollars. Just as quickly, the county moved to slash property taxes to the lowest level of any county in the state, which county officials said was an overture to businesses and investors.
Murphree, who ran the county from 1994 until 2005, said the property tax cut was a boon to everyone: “Everybody got tax relief. Landowners, everybody who owned a house.”
But it disproportionately benefited Tunica’s wealthy, particularly as some landowners leased their tracts to the casinos in lucrative long-term deals. Tax records show 76 percent of the county’s property tax dollars comes from 100 property-owning entities and individuals among 3,200 who own land in the county.
Most U.S. counties depend on taxes to fund basic services. But in this case, the casino money was used as a replacement — helping to subsidize the giant property tax cut. If taxes were kept at their 1993 levels, the county would have had an extra $100 million.
“Who got rich?” said Michael Thompson, who now runs the county. “The plantation owners.”
Other uses of the money were well-intentioned, residents and officials say, but did not pan out.
A big chunk of the gambling revenue, about 12 percent, was devoted to the public school system — where it led to virtually no improvement. A 1997 state report chided the district for “wasteful” and “imprudent” spending, such as renovations for buildings and “large” raises for maintenance and transportation workers, that failed to improve the academic setting.
The tourist attractions — the golf course, the museums, the wedding hall— were built as part of a plan to turn the county into a place where middle-class Americans would flock for days at a time. But in this case, with the downturn in visitors, those taxpayer-subsidized sites have become a modest drain on the county purses.
“Everything was done with good intentions,” said Cedric Burnett, a longtime member of the county board and president of a local funeral home. “The intention was to increase the patronage and get people to stay longer. Now, did it work? No, it did not.”
Other officials say the county has indeed made critical strides.
“We tend to forget how far we’ve come,” said Webster Franklin, president and chief executive of the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau. “In 1990, you couldn’t buy shoes in Tunica. There weren’t safe roads to travel on.”
In 2011, as the casino money withered, activists canvassed black neighborhoods, telling voters that two decades of money had been squandered, too little used for anything of value to them.
“We had people coming out to the polls who hadn’t voted for years,” said Joe Eddie Hawkins, a black political activist.
The 2011 elections flipped Tunica’s five-person board of supervisors from having two black members to being entirely black.
One of the newly elected board members called up Thompson, then a young auditor in Jackson, Miss. With casino revenue dwindling, the county needed to quickly cut its own expenses, something it is still struggling to do.
“We are literally living check to check,” Thompson said. “Like a poor family.”
Thompson, 37, who was raised poor in Memphis, recently stumbled upon the “60 Minutes” segment on YouTube. Tunica, in his eyes, still had a version of the same problems.
“I had all types of emotions,” Thompson said of the video. “Anger. Sadness. Disbelief. All of that. Mad at the fact that this stuff used to go on like this. Sad at the fact that it has gone on for so long. And disbelief that it’s still going on today.”
Engle-Harris was traveling to her godson’s basketball game when she got a call from Mardis Jones, the county housing coordinator. Engle-Harris was hoping for good news after submitting her application and making a plea for assistance.
Already, Jones and other Tunica officials had visited her house, examining the sloped kitchen shelves, the bedroom doors that wouldn’t close, the wood wedged under the toilet to keep it in place. They had watched how Engle-Harris and her mentally disabled brother, who also lived there, hopscotched across the firm parts of the floor, fearful that one wrong step would tear the plywood like a piece of Kleenex. “Not livable,” Jones had concluded, later telling others. “An immediate need. . . . Messed up.”
But here, Jones had only an apology.
“We have a huge waiting list,” he recalled telling Engle-Harris, “and the board doesn’t want me to move you ahead of the others. ...
“You’re looking at a wait of about five years to get assistance. ...
“It’s not my call. The money is shorting up. . . . “I wish I could do more.” Five years? Engle-Harris gulped and tried to imagine what might happen to a sinking house over five years. She spent the night by herself almost frozen with anxiety. She barely slept. She forced down a few bites of dinner at 1 a.m.
Days passed before she could bring herself to tell relatives and friends that she wouldn’t be able to receive the renovations. She bought fewer groceries and cut down to two meals per day. She researched selling her Volkswagen Beetle. She watched Joel Osteen sermons to stay positive, rewinding the parts that she liked three and four times over. She tried to swallow her hip pain and began looking for part-time work — something lighter than the teaching job she’d been forced to leave.
“It’s enough watching this house collapse,” she said. “I don’t want to feel like a failure.”
It helped little learning that others across Tunica were enduring the same wait. The county hadn’t renovated a single home since June 2014, given the budget uncertainty, and Jones still had 97 other people ahead of Engle-Harris on a housing list that was only growing.
“If I look at my life,” Engle-Harris said, “it’s clear there was a thin line between middle class and poverty.”
Though many of the families in Engle-Harris’s neighborhood had always been poor, hers hadn’t. Both of her parents had held down jobs, and in 1964 her father bought a white-painted home — the same one that was now falling apart — for $3,000, “cash in hand,” according to the deed for Lot 1, Block Q of the Tunica Colored Subdivision. Her parents had enough credit to take out college loans for several of their eight children. Engle-Harris graduated in 1985 from Fort Valley State University in Georgia. In 1989, she earned a master’s degree in education from the same school.
She held teaching jobs across the South, mostly in the outskirts of Atlanta. She returned to Tunica for good in 2008 to take care of her brother, Johnny, who was struggling with mental-health issues. This time, she got a job at a school district one county to the south, teaching teenagers about Newton’s laws of motion and parasites, and moved back into the family home. “Miss Educator,” one of Engle-Harris’s neighbors called her, and she liked that: a person of esteem. She never felt as if she belonged in a blighted neighborhood.
When the neighborhood felt too depressing, she drove 45 minutes north to the Tennessee border, where she bought Powerball tickets. Some days, when she felt she didn’t have $2 to spare, she hit the state line and simply turned back.
“Anything to get away,” she said.
Several weeks after absorbing the news that her situation wouldn’t improve anytime soon, Engle-Harris decided to walk down the street and visit a neighbor who, in this part of town, passed for a success story.
Many of the homes in Engle-Harris’s neighborhood, known locally as the Old Sub, looked just as bad as her own. Blankets covered cracked windows. Porches were splintered and V-shaped. Tarps were patched atop roofs, the kind of improvising one might see in the aftermath of a typhoon.
But as Engle-Harris shuffled down Coldwater Street and turned onto Sears Avenue, she came across something different — the newest county-built home in the neighborhood. In this case, it was a single-wide trailer on a muddy lot. Engle-Harris knocked. “Hi,” she said when a friend opened the door. “Do you mind if I, uh, just look around? I’m trying to get my own home done.”
Engle-Harris took a few steps from the doorway but didn’t sit down. There was no room.
Eight people — four generations — lived inside.
A toddler was sleeping on the floor. Two teens shared a couch. Another teenager cradled an infant in her arms.
Engle-Harris stayed for about 10 minutes.
A home like this, she figured, was the best-case scenario for the last decades of her life.
“That might be what happens to me,” she said. “A new trailer, right back on top of the mud.”
For now, all she could do was retrace what had gone wrong. On a frigid evening in early March, she slipped into a room in the local courthouse where Thompson, the head of the county, promised information.
“Gaming, Greed & Government,” Thompson had written on a whiteboard at the front of the courtroom. “The proliferation of gaming in Tunica County + The False Promises of Economic Development.”
He lingered near an overhead projector as the room filled.
“I want this to be informative,” Thompson began, “so we can understand how to move forward.”
Over the next 90 minutes, as the wind howled and rain pelted the windows, he detailed years of government decisions, all the money that flowed in. He touched lightly on the spending mistakes that followed. The casino money alone hadn’t been enough; the government, 12 years ago, issued $30 million in debt to pay for some of its buildings— an obligation that it hadn’t even begun to pay off.
Thompson hoped his speech wouldn’t be a downer, and ended with a bit of rah-rah about the county’s “new opportunity,” the ability to define the next 10 to 15 years with more sensible spending. But Engle-Harris, sitting by herself in the third row, dropped her head. Nearly every resident in the courtroom had questions and grievances — about the fire department; about sheriff ’s department funding; about medical clinic salaries — and her housing concerns were just one set on a too-long list. At the event, she never raised her hand to speak.
Engle-Harris made it home just before the snow started and put together a salad with Doritos and hot dog pieces inside. As she ate, she watched the wind snap at the paper bags she had crumpled up to plug holes in the wall. When she woke up the next morning, ribbons of cold air were coming in. A few of the paper bags were gone.
At top, Linda Fay Engle-Harris, 60, takes a walk on her block in Tunica, Miss. Many homes, including her own, are in alarming disrepair. A county program to fix or replace such dwellings has been plagued by funding shortfalls despite a $759 million windfall over two decades from the casino industry which, like these Bally’s slot machines, has fallen on hard times.
At top, theHorseshoe CasinoHotel still draws tourists and locals in Tunica, Miss. But the heyday of windfall earnings from the casino business seems to be gone. And critics say things were built with that money— including an Olympic-size swimming pool and the Tunica RiverPark wedding facility, above, which cost $26 million— at the expense of the poverty-stricken residents of the county.
At top, this cotton gin operation in Tunica, Miss., has been decaying for more than a decade. The casino industry was supposed to pull the poverty-stricken county into affluence, says a period brochure held by County AdministratorMichael Thompson at a recent town meeting. He says he’s trying to address the cold realities. Ramona Ross, above, is just trying to address the cold— with wadded paper.