By Charlie Mitchell
OXFORD – It’s as if a giant vacuum swept over the Mississippi Delta during the past 10 years. People left in droves.
Take Greenville. Fifty years ago, Greenville was an intellectual and commercial hub in northwest Mississippi. It was the seat of Washington County, which had almost 80,000 citizens. The most recent tally was 51,000. The rate of decline for the 10 years leading to the last U.S. Census was 18.8 percent. And, of course, the slide occurred during a time the overall state population grew and the national population surged by more than 40 million.
Across the Delta, the story of the past decade is the same:
* Quitman, down 18.7 percent to 8,223 people.
* Coahoma, down 14.6 percent to 26,151.
* Bolivar, down 16 percent to 34,145.
* Sunflower, down 14.3 percent to 29,450.
* Leflore, down 14.8 percent to 32,317.
* Humphreys, down 16.3 percent to 8,375.
At the base of the Delta where two counties must go together to have enough students for one high school, Sharkey dropped 25.3 percent to 4,916 people and Issaquena dropped 38.2 percent to 1,406 breathing souls.
It’s as if everyone who could get out, got out – largely due to the lack of jobs.
Left behind, in large measure, were pensioners and those trapped in dependency on public assistance. Communities that once had grocery stores, pharmacies and medical clinics now have boarded-up shells of buildings. One tiny mom and pop shop might sell soda, beer and cigarettes.
The library in Sunflower, population about 500, was never more than a hut. But 10 years ago someone said there was a mold problem. The door was shut and locked. Books have been rotting on the shelves since.
That may be sad, but this isn’t about pity. Even the most fiscal-minded of hard-hearted conservatives need to note this: A substantial price is being paid just to provide sustenance in the stagnant communities.
Take Humphreys County. There, the cost of direct government aid, in all forms, per person was $11,385.31 in 2010. The same cost in DeSoto County, which was Mississippi’s fastest growing in the last census, was $4,717.20.
So, clearly, given that the expense to the taxpaying public can be 2.5 times greater per person where poverty rules than where there’s an economic pulse, there’s an economic imperative (on top of the social imperative) to seek a turnaround for the region as aggressively as possible.
There are a couple of obstacles.
One is the tendency to blame poor people for being poor, for not doing more to improve themselves, for not joining the throngs who have left to seek work. People of this viewpoint say “it’s their fault they’re poor” and refuse to think about the fact that explosive poverty may well bankrupt the state.
Another is the lack of Delta-wide leadership. U.S. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, in office since 1993, is the kingpin. He practices politics the old-school way. Reward your friends, punish your enemies, tell your constituents repeatedly they are hapless victims of an unfair world and then dance off to enjoy junket after junket.
Otherwise, there are significant signs of an awakening, at least at the local level.
Clarksdale, Cleveland and Indianola are joining other communities with deep Blues roots in finding ways to attract and entertain travelers interested in seeing and understanding the birthplace of America’s music.
Greenville voters have installed new leadership at City Hall that is interested in the community more than self-aggrandizement or the next rung on a political ladder.
Biracial groups are working in several smaller communities, including Charleston, to engage in business development and recruitment of small manufacturing firms.
Greenwood never stops trying to leverage the good jobs it still has (mostly associated with Viking appliances) into more.
Some are going so far as to say that the worst days are behind for the Delta, that a healing across racial and economic lines has begun and it will lead to better times for all.
Maybe, but the other three quarters of the state need to be interested, too. That includes the Legislature, which of late has seemed more interested in roping off the region and pretending it doesn’t exist.
The Mississippi Delta has never been without good people. Importantly, it has never been without hope, either.
It’s hard to imagine that the Delta hasn’t bottomed out. If there’s a comeback in the decade ahead, it will because as the remaining residents regained their footing, and they had help and support from those smart enough to see the region’s future is tightly entwined with the rest of Mississippi.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.