En­trenched poverty dif­fi­cult to over­come in Mis­sis­sippi Delta

The Washington Times Daily - - NATION - BY EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS

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.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

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