American poverty as serious as in developing world

On June 20, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other activists are hoping to draw as many as 50,000 people...

Above: Interim SCLC President Rev. Byron Clay (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

On June 20, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other activists are hoping to draw as many as 50,000 people for a march and demonstration at the state capital in Jackson, Mississippi.

The protest, similar to the Poor People’s Campaign that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., hoped to lead on Washington before his assassination in 1968, is designed to draw attention to the continued plight of the poor in the Mississippi Delta.

This issue is one that I have seen up close. Back in February, I was the lone journalist on a road trip dubbed the Poverty Tour, organized by a grassroots Louisiana-based nonprofit called Gathering of Hearts. It’s led by two strong women of color: Antoinette Harrell, an African American genealogist in rural Louisiana, and Ines Soto-Palmarin of Boston, an urban planner of Puerto Rican descent, who are determined to shine a light on 21st century poverty in America.

I joined them on a chilly morning along with 30 other volunteers, our caravan of SUV’s, mini-vans, and a large U-Haul truck snaking along a flat stretch of black highway, past acres of cotton fields and murky rivers.

Our group was small but diverse: high school and college students, social workers, and educators. They were black, white, Latino and Southeast Asian, and ranged in age from 15 to a spry, 85-year-old octogenarian. They hailed from many parts of the United States, and had spent their own money to come and help out. And believe me, the needs in this part of the country are pressing.

The recession has hit many Americans hard, but in some parts of the country, times were already tough. In Mississippi, for instance, the poverty rate was 20.6 percent, according to 2007 Census figures, and the median household just around $36,000. Comparatively, in a state like Maryland, the median income is close to $70,000 a year.

Our first stop was Lambert, a farming community of about 1,700 people, most of them African-American and descendents of sharecroppers. As we pulled up to a tiny wooden church, dozens of townsfolk waited outside. They’d heard that supplies were being delivered— 95 trash bags filled with clothing, blankets and more— and although proud, were willing to accept the kindness of strangers if it meant helping their families.

As some of the volunteers and local men began unloading the truck, the townsfolk began to loudly voice their frustration about the lack of basic essentials in this town and their needs.

“Housing! Jobs!” people yelled. “We’re back to basics. We don’t even have decent water. We have to boil or buy water!”

“Me myself personally, I am a single parent, with a child in school,” said one woman. “I have to drive a hundred miles to take her to school, a hundred miles bringing her back.”

As the litany of complaints continued, I quietly pulled aside individual residents, asking them to describe their quality of life. One sturdy looking woman in her 70’s, wasn’t shy. “Ain’t nothing here,” she said, in a husky Southern drawl. “Ain’t no stores, no clinics, no nothing. We down to zero. We like a barrel of flour. Ain’t nothing but dust here now.”

Indeed, the roads in many parts of town were gravel, and more than a few houses were veritable shacks. We toured one in particular that had a sagging roof, trash bags over windows, planks for steps. The interior was worse. A young couple—both unemployed—and their two small daughters lived there, often navigating by candlelight and trying to keep the children from falling down on the living room’s deeply sloped floors. The mother cried as a local church and event organizers presented a deed to the home, and promised to provide some type of assistance so that it could be renovated.

But while grateful for such help, many in town were not optimistic that their collective plight would improve. They blamed past and present local leadership. One woman, her voice soft but anguished, had this to say:

“We had many promises and then those promises they fail. So what we’re looking for, I know I am, and I believe I can speak for everybody, we are looking for a betterment. …A betterment for our community; a betterment for our children. We’re looking for a betterment for the schools. We’re looking for a lot of things.”

The town’s Mayor, who many here openly criticized, told me that he’s tried to make things better during his eight years in office. He’s made improvements to the water system, he said, and proposed a community-owned grocery. But he blamed outside forces for the woes of Lambert and other struggling Delta towns—especially the lack of jobs.

“As far as industries, in the past we’ve had industries like clothing and textile factories” he said. “But when [NAFTA] and other agreements came in,” he said, major companies “left out and moved south of the border to Mexico.”

And Samuel McCray, a caseworker for Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson who participated in the tour, said the issues in the Delta don’t lend themselves to easy answers.

“I think one thing you have to know about the Delta is that it been neglected for a long time,” he told me. “I was reared on a plantation. In fact, I lived there `til I was 27-years-old. So the lack of water, the lack of sewer, all of the things that you basically take for granted anyplace else, is basically luxury for a number of us. And we just a generation from the plantation,” he said.

Our journey continued and none of it was pretty. There were stops in small farming enclaves where homes had open wiring and toilets were filled with rusty water. Where young men stood on corners and a preacher lamented that “thugs” had taken advantage of the lack of jobs to bring drugs into these once poor, but proud communities.

One town we stopped in, a little blip on the map called Glen Allen was so small it does not have a mayor, nor is it incorporated. I spoke with some local men inside a local juke joint where the atmosphere was lively—music playing, drinks and a pool table—-but the talk was dismal.

About a half dozen men assembled, told me that they desperately wanted to work, but jobs in the region were scarce. In particular, the modernization of agriculture, which eliminated many farming positions, left uneducated workers with few options.

“You ain’t got nothing to do,” said one gentleman in his `50s. If your wife ain’t working—maybe doing some cooking, housecleaning or something like that,” that’s the only way to take care of the bills.”

There was a sincerity about these men and everyone I met that was palpable; most were adamant that they did not want public assistance or welfare, and I could tell it was painful for many of them to even talk about their situations.

And while voters here overwhelmingly supported President Obama, many wondered if they will see any benefits from the economic stimulus package. Mississippi’s governor has gone on record as saying he may not accept some federal monies, and the folks here simply feel like the rest of the country has forgotten them.

That said, the Obama administration—which has its hands full— has pledged to “lead a new federal approach to revitalize communities stricken by the economic crisis as well as communities that were hurting before it began.”

As the trip wound down, and our group climbed back into the vans, heading for our hotel and eventually our own comfortable homes, Harrell reflected on what we’d seen.

“I think for most Americans they would not think that this is happening in this country. They would think about Africa, Cambodia, some places in South America,” she said, shaking her head. “But right here in America there’s people with no decent homes, water, food, warm clothing. And I think sometimes American people do not want to see and they choose to ignore.”

The SCLC and others activists are marching in hopes that Americans won’t ignore the poverty on our own doorstep any longer.