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Poverty-stricken past and present in the Mississippi Delta

Rich in soil, music and culture, the Mississippi Delta is one of those unique regions that has come to hold a special place in the American imagination. But in terms of economic mobility and poverty, this stretch of land is far behind anywhere else in the developed world. Kai Ryssdal takes a look at the storied and complex history of the Mississippi Delta.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    While all eyes were on Ohio this week, we look now at another Cleveland, this one in the Mississippi Delta, where poverty and economic mobility are worse than anywhere else in the developed world.

    This report is part of our series How the Deck is Stacked. It’s funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and a collaboration from American Public Media’s Marketplace, and PBS’ “Frontline” and the “NewsHour.”

    Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace has the story.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    The Mississippi Delta is known for music and for juke joints like this one, and for rich agricultural land.

    Cotton was once the main crop here, now mostly corn. Despite how fertile the ground is here, one in five households live below the poverty line, and, in fact, Mississippi is ranked 50th out of 50 states by poverty rate; 68-year-old Catherine Wilson has lived here her whole life.

  • CATHERINE WILSON, Cleveland-area resident:

    Back then, in the ’60s, just like we had to move from home to home because we didn’t have enough to eat, enough money to survive on.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    In 1964, President Johnson introduced legislation to deal with a national poverty rate that was almost 20 percent. It became known as the war on poverty. Jobs training, adult education and loans were all part of the plan.

    In April of 1967, Senator Robert Kennedy visited the Delta to have a look for himself at how bad the poverty was.

    So, this is 1967. That’s Bobby Kennedy right there. And who is that lady in the striped dress? Yes. Pretty good, huh.

  • CATHERINE WILSON:

    That’s good.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    That’s a smile, right? Do you remember that?

  • CATHERINE WILSON:

    Yes, I remember the day he came, all right.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    What did he want to know? What did he ask you about?

  • CATHERINE WILSON:

    Asking about what did we want to see done. They said they want jobs and housing.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    Blacks in the Delta had historically worked the land, but mechanization and pesticides meant fewer jobs and less money.

  • CATHERINE WILSON:

    We have come a long ways since back then. We were so poor and struggling, we didn’t have anything. But right now, a lot of people have got jobs. They couldn’t get no jobs back then.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    Catherine Wilson lives alone in a place called Freedom Village, built originally to house those displaced farm workers.

    Peter Edelman was an aide to Bobby Kennedy. He was with him on that 1967 trip to the Delta.

  • PETER EDELMAN, Former Aide to Sen. Robert Kennedy:

    He said to me as we went from one house to the next that he — this was worse than anything he’d ever seen in a Third World country.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    Marian Wright had been working in the Delta, opening Head Start offices to help low-income families. She’s the one who convinced Kennedy to come to Mississippi.

    There is a little bit of romance in this story. Marian Wright and Peter Edelman met on that trip to the Delta. They have been married for almost 40 years. Marian Wright Edelman went on to create the Children’s Defense Fund.

    Catherine Wilson, meanwhile, did get some education and training from programs that grew out of the war on poverty. But the economy today isn’t the same economy that we had half-a-century ago.

  • PETER EDELMAN:

    What has happened over the last 40 years is that we have had a major change in our economy. Good jobs have gone to technology, to globalization. And the consequence is that half of our population is not earning enough to support their families, and a whole lot of them can’t find jobs at all.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    Catherine Wilson’s had a whole series of part-time jobs, but she’s never made much money. She has survived mostly on government assistance. She’s now on Social Security now; 22 percent of the people in Mississippi rely on food stamps.

  • WOMAN:

    Some things have gotten better. We have got a middle class that wasn’t there.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    But there’s still lots missing.

  • WOMAN:

    Over 80 percent of the black children in Mississippi cannot read or compute at grade level in 4th or 8th grade. What is a child going to do if they can’t read and compute at the most basic levels?

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    In Cleveland, those basic levels are determined, in part, by literally what side of the tracks you grew up on. Economic mobility, or the lack of it, is plain to see. The unemployment rate for whites is 6 percent; for African-Americans, it is 22 percent.

  • TRAVIS CALVIN, Delta State University Mobile Music Lab:

    Our goal with this project to promote racial healing in our community.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    Travis Calvin runs the Delta State University Mobile Music Lab. It’s a refurbished school bus outfitted with a complete recording studio.

  • TRAVIS CALVIN:

    I grew up in Clarksdale, Mississippi. It’s about 30 miles north of here. Just like the Delta, it’s rich in history, rich in the blues, rich in musical culture, but a really bad town when it comes to crime rate. I came to Delta State, and it was my way out. So I feel like its my duty to pay it forward.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    The program Travis runs, it’s called Healing With a Groove, focuses on young men of color, guys like 16-year-old A’Midius Sigle (ph).

    What would your life be like if you hadn’t found this?

  • A’MIDIUS SIGLE, Student:

    I don’t know. I would probably be in a world I don’t need to be in. A lot of my friends, like, they don’t do stuff they don’t need to do. That’s why I don’t hang with some of them.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    Mike Carr (ph) is from the other side of the tracks. He’s a public defender in Cleveland.

  • MIKE CARR, Cleveland Resident:

    It was a wonderful place to grow up, but I’m very privileged, all right? I grew up with two parents that were middle-class, that were educated, that encouraged me.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    Not all kids, though, in this town, have that same deal. Right?

  • MIKE CARR:

    No, absolutely not. I spend 70 percent of my practice dealing with people who are at the bottom of the barrel, in the sense that they have not only just financially absolutely nothing, but just emotionally they also have absolutely nothing.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    Nationwide, the wealth gap between white and black households has grown dramatically since the great recession. According to a report from the Pew Research Center, White households have net worths 13 times higher than black families do.

    In Cleveland, the median income for a black family is less than half of that for a white family.

  • JIMMY WILSON, Restaurant Owner:

    We’re still divided, to a certain extent.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    Do you feel it? Do you feel it everyday?

  • JIMMY WILSON:

    Oh, yes. Oh, yes. But you can’t say nothing about it, you know?

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    Lifelong Cleveland resident Jimmy Wilson has owned this soul food restaurant since 1994, once a meeting spot for civil rights activists and leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.

  • JIMMY WILSON:

    Right during the civil rights movement, all the people that would come into Cleveland would meet here. It was Lily’s Cafe back then.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    When you look around today, though, at the young people in this town, where do they go when they get out of high school?

  • JIMMY WILSON:

    Most of them is in the streets. They don’t go anywhere. They into drug business, because there’s no jobs here. And because there is no jobs, the education standard is not where it needs to be to entice companies to want to come here.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    So, Bobby Kennedy comes here in 1967, right, almost 50 years ago.

  • JIMMY WILSON:

    Yes.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    Has it been wasted time?

  • JIMMY WILSON:

    Has been wasted time.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    Catherine Wilson is more optimistic. She’d like to see freedom village become a place to help those in need.

  • CATHERINE WILSON:

    I ain’t given up Freedom Village. I still believe.

  • KAI RYSSDAL:

    For the “PBS NewsHour” in Cleveland, Mississippi, this is Kai Ryssdal.

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