Entrenched poverty difficult to overcome in Mississippi Delta
JONESTOWN, MISS. | Otibehia Allen is a single mother who lives in a rented mobile home in the same isolated, poor community where she grew up among the cotton and soybean fields of the Mississippi Delta.
During a summer that feels like a sauna, the trailer’s air conditioner has conked out. Some nights, Ms. Allen and her five children find cooler accommodations with friends and relatives. Other nights, they sleep in the trailer with box fans circulating the stuffy air.
Ms. Allen works 30 hours a week as a data entry clerk and transportation dispatcher for a medical clinic, pulling in barely over minimum wage. She doesn’t own a car, and public transportation is not widely available.
To get from home in Jonestown to work or even to go grocery shopping about 13 miles away in Clarksdale, Ms. Allen often pays people for a ride — sometimes $20 a pop.
“It’s not easy raising five children alone,” Ms. Allen said, fighting back tears. “No, you didn’t ask me to have them, true. So, I chose to. So that means I’m responsible for these people.”
Persistent poverty shapes daily existence in this expanse of agricultural flatland that gave birth to the blues. Jobs are scarce. Schools struggle for funding. Tens of thousands of families receive government food aid and health insurance.
Fifty years ago, Democratic Sens. Robert F. Kennedy of New York and Joe Clark of Pennsylvania toured the Delta and saw ramshackle houses and starving children.
Curtis Wilkie was a young reporter covering the senators’ tour for a Delta newspaper, the Clarksdale Press Register.
At one stop, Mr. Wilkie recalled: “There was a little infant in a dirty diaper crawling around on the floor and eating rice — grains of rice that were on the floor that were dirty. … Kennedy knelt by the child and didn’t say a word, was stroking the little child’s cheeks and his forehead.”
Mississippi’s congressional delegation in 1967, led by Democratic Sens. James Eastland and John Stennis and Rep. Jamie Whitten, resisted federal funding for food programs and for Head Start, a preschool program that many conservatives saw as a threat to the state’s white, segregationist power structure because it educated poor black children.
Mr. Wilkie said the trip had an enormous impact on Kennedy, whose eyes welled with tears at the sight of the child: “No question that once he got back to Washington, he became a more passionate advocate for rural people.”
Kennedy ran for president in 1968. Moments after winning the California primary, he was assassinated.
Mississippi’s second-term Republican governor, Phil Bryant, was born to a blue-collar family in the Delta in 1954. He frequently says he doesn’t want people to be dependent on government. Under his tenure, Mississippi’s been one of 19 states rejecting expansion of Medicaid, the federal and state health insurance program for the poor, under the health care law signed by former President Barack Obama.
Mr. Bryant, who supports President Trump, says job creation is the best way to combat poverty. Since he became governor, Mississippi has offered incentives to attract two tire manufacturing plants — one is open, the other being built. Neither is in the Delta.
Otibehia Allen, a single mother, works 30 hours a week as a data entry clerk and transportation dispatcher for a medical clinic, pulling in barely over minimum wage.