By Charlie Mitchell
OXFORD – Twenty-seven years ago, the Rev. Jesse Jackson went to Tunica County, specifically to a neighborhood called Sugar Ditch. By census figures, Tunica was the poorest county in the nation. On “60 Minutes” Jackson called Tunica “America’s Ethiopia.”
The media loved the name of Sugar Ditch because of the irony. There was a slough near the shacks. It held the outflow of outhouses. There was nothing sweet about Sugar Ditch.
The nation’s conscience was shocked. Aid programs, state and federal, were intensified to end the embarrassment.
Turns out that’s all that ended. Today, people in Tunica County depend on government payments of all types more than ever.
Of course, all aid programs have grown during the past quarter-century. But there are special reasons for spotlighting Tunica County. First, after ending conditions in Sugar Ditch became a priority, federal and state aid spending was ramped up. Second, of course, is that for most of the past 20 years, Tunica has been the second-largest gaming destination in the nation – logging more than $1.2 billion annually in business volume and generating $48 million per year for local treasuries.
Surely, one would think, that would “wipe out poverty.”
First, the aid influx.
Six years after Jackson’s visit, the New York Times reported the shacks were gone. “I like it all right,” the newspaper quoted a resident as saying about her new apartment. Her home and the others that had no plumbing, electricity or modern heating and cooling had been razed. Her sliding scale rent based on her income was $2 per month.
In the six years, government payments as a component of income had risen to 26 percent of all household revenue in Tunica County. The average for all other counties in America at that time was 11.5 percent. The war on poverty was being waged full-scale in the Mississippi Delta.
In the background was the obscure bill passed in 1990 by the Mississippi Legislature that transformed Tunica into the Las Vegas of the South.
Well, “official Tunica” prospered. The exponential increase – more than tenfold – in money for city, county and school operations resulted in plenty of cash for streets, teachers, classrooms.
For the citizens of Tunica, the story is much different, and it illustrates something no politician of any ideological stripe has been willing to address.
Tunica County – 460 square miles in the northwest corner of the state – has never been heavily populated. The 1860 Census shows 883 whites and 3,483 African-American slaves. As more acres were cleared for farming, the postwar population grew. When mechanized agriculture arrived, people left. In 1990, the tally was 8,164 – about enough people to fill a decent-sized high school football stadium. It was falling by double-digit chunks every 10 years.
The only people left in the county were those who owned the vast, flat, fertile fields and the few they employed to work the crops. Being in the shadow of Memphis, the merchant class was struggling for a toehold, and losing.
But surely the casinos – which employ 15,000 people – would reduce the public cost of poverty, right?
No. Not at all.
By 2009 – after nearly 20 years of casino operations and boom times – the government’s most recent statistics say 28.3 percent of all income in Tunica County is through transfer payments. The national rate is also much higher, up from 11.5 percent to 17.6 percent, but few places in the nation have had anywhere near the infusion of private capital that Tunica County has seen.
An abundance of factors weigh in to these calculations, but here’s the nut of it: Public funds now provide a larger share of the daily bread of Tunica residents than before the boom times. The total outlay for food stamps and other income support divided by the total county population in 1989 was $1,314. Twenty years later that amount, unadjusted for inflation, is $2,013.
That’s the thing about poverty. It can’t be wiped out simply by public spending. It can’t be wiped out simply by private spending. It is insidious.
For their part, progressives love to have pity parties and talk about how awful it is to have subsistence living in a land of abundance. For their part, conservatives seem intent on punishing people for being poor, unafraid that their legitimate push to end handouts might ensnare those who legitimately need a hand up.
Poverty is a puzzle. Assumptions are too often wrong. It is a worthy adversary. And even where it shouldn’t be, it’s growing.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.