November 24, 2010

Lower Mississippi Valley Region - Socio-economic Perspective

It's the chicken and the egg. What makes Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana; together forming the Lower Mississippi Valley Region, the poorest region in the country? Why do these three states constantly rank among the lowest in the nation in per capita income, school funding and test scores, but highest rates of welfare recipients, hunger (and ironically obesity), various disease rates, teenage pregancy, and so many other categories typically associated with poverty? 1 in 5 people in Mississippi live below the poverty line.

I'd always heard about this and even joked about it over the years. But, once you arrive and you travel through these small towns and walk amongst the neighborhoods, it brings it to a whole new light. There is something really happening here or perhaps better stated not happening. It actually feels like you have left the United States and been transported to another continent.

It seems about 1/2 of the people in this region live in single-wide trailers
Many of these towns are all-black and honestly these are the first rural all-black areas I have ever visited. And many of the whites are poor too. There is no money to be seen, except for the huge houses and mansions of Natchez and a few other antebellum communities. But, what is the reason?

Is it still a legacy of slavery 150-years later? Is it, as one cotton plantation owner told Linda, that the people are simply to lazy to learn the new technology? Is it racism and quasi-racist socio-economic policies of still majority white government officials? Or is it even something greater? A sinister crop of evil that dooms all who work it?

So many of these homes have insulation, wood, or platic wrap on their busted windows
When I was in Natchez and had an opportunity to talk about issues of economics, race, and history with a national park ranger and a couple of local business-owner volunteer interpreters at Natchez National Historic Park, it was an enlightening and interesting conversation. But, it still left me without a final answer.

Is it cotton?
It seems as though wherever cotton is grown misery follows. It destroys the soil, depleting it of nutrients in a way almost no other crop can. When grown too intensively and without rotation it causes erosion of the topsoil and decline of any crop to follow. It's history in the Soviet Union is dreadful and caused the evaporation of the world's 4th largest lake (The Aral Sea) into a toxic wasteland. It was the destruction of the farmlands of Alabama by cotton that lead George Washington Carver to leave his lucrative academic career in Iowa for the little known Tuskegee Institute to study and teach agricultural reforms.

An active cotton plantation
Linda will write the post regarding her visit to a modern cotton plantation which also preserves a historic slave operation including the buildings and original gin. So, I'll let her elaborate on how cotton is grown.

But, I'll say that the legacy cotton leaves still remains today. After the Civil War, most slaves who were now "free" did not have many options. All they knew was growing cotton. So, many of them continued to work on the same farms and for the same former slave owners. The system of sharecropping came up where they would be allowed to "keep" a portion of the crop. But, with little in the way of cooperatives or market know-how and thus no practical way to sell their crop, they basically had to sell it back to the plantation owner at whatever rates they wanted to pay. A cycle of debt and burden essentially made them functional slaves in this Reconstructionist period and all the way until the 1950's. Take with that the Jim Crow laws and essentially these people had no way out.

Let's jump ahead to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's. Still many of these people are functionally illiterate, in schools that are poorly to virtually unfunded, with little in the way of job opportunities or training. So, while opportunities for blacks in the cities increased, the rural blacks remained in this cycle of poverty.

Everywhere we go there are people picking pecans to sell at truck-side stands
What ultimately changed The South was not so much changes in laws, but technology and immigration. With the invention of the air conditioner (to make life bearable), low costs of living, and aggressive and progressive investment in manufacturing and technology, people began moving starting in the 1970's from the crowded and cold northern industrial cities to places like Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. The South began to grow, shift demographically, and diversified socially and economically.

This is subsistance living for many out here
But, that growth and economic shift has passed the Lower Mississippi Valley by. "Old Money" wealthy plantation owners have been very territorial about their status on the top of the pecking order. Politicians in these states still under-fund schools and other critical social infrastructure because it benefits the system they control. While these "fiscal conservatives" save their states' money by not funding anything, these states also draw far more into their states via federal funds than they send. Because, if the state lawmakers are not going to pay to educate and feed the people and maintain the infrastructure, who will?

So, what you see are people living in the most abject poverty in this great country. You see tiny houses or more often very old trailers, propped up on blocks, with ripped mosquito netting and rotting roofs lining neighborhood after neighborhood.

The bridge over the Mississippi River from poor Vidalia, LA to rich Natchez, MS
But, there is an optimism and a joy of life that remains. The people seem happy, smiling, enjoying life. They roast chicken on the BBQ outside, sit on street corners conversing, collect pecans from the trees at the city park to sell at roadside stands, and they are seen fishing from every river bank. The neighborhoods are not filled with garbage or grafitti. You don't feel unsafe walking the streets and don't feel like there are scary characters lurking around. For some, they are simply making a subsidence living. But for many it seems, they are simply making the most of what they were given and trying to enjoy it.

No comments: