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Welfare Reform Rhetoric Rings Hollow in the Delta

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sitting in the tidy shack of a house she rents for $140 a month, Diane Walker is complaining about the severely slanted floor, the broken electrical fixtures and the water that rushes through the roof when it rains.

And in a still more hopeless tone, she laments her dismal prospects for bettering her family’s lot.

“I’ve been looking for a job for about three years,” said Walker, 32, adding that she has filled out applications at every factory and store in the area. “But you can’t make somebody hire you.”

Like many of the people living in the cheap houses, trailers and barrack-type apartments in her neighborhood, Walker supports herself and her three children with public-assistance checks and food stamps. Her sense of being trapped in the welfare system is common in the Mississippi Delta, a region where too few jobs and inadequate schools combine with other vestiges of a racist society to make poverty particularly intractable.

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Federal officials designing welfare reform acknowledge that “ending welfare as we know it"--President Clinton’s professed goal--may be impossible here and in other rural regions.

The Administration hopes to break the vicious cycle of welfare dependency by limiting Aid to Families With Dependent Children to a maximum of two years and by guaranteeing public service work for those who cannot get private sector jobs after two years on welfare. The Administration is still working out the financial details of its reform proposal, which it intends to submit to Congress late this month.

But the “two years and out” formula may not make sense in chronically poor, remote areas where training, child care and jobs are in desperately short supply. Presidential adviser Bruce Reed, chairman of the group designing the welfare reform package, said these areas may have to be exempted from the two-year limit.

“That system will not work here,” said Robert Gray, Shelby’s mayor. “How can people go to work if there are no jobs? Jobs can’t be created that fast. Where’s the money going to come from?”

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There are a lot of Shelbys in the United States. While the debate on welfare reform has centered on places such as South-Central Los Angeles, a quarter of the national poverty population in 1992--9.5 million people--lived in non-metropolitan areas. The poverty rate in rural areas was 17%, much higher than the national average of 11%.

According to experts, about half of the rural poor live in areas plagued by persistent poverty, including the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia, South Texas, the “black belt” from southern Alabama to South Carolina and the Native American reservations of the Southwest and northern Plains states. For the 30 years between 1960 and 1990, 540 counties, most of them in these regions, have consistently had poverty rates of more than 20%.

“Ending welfare as we know it assumes that the opportunities are there but people are not motivated to take them,” said Mark Rank, an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis and author of “Living on the Edge,” a new book on welfare. “But if you go to the Mississippi Delta or Appalachia, you’ll find lots of willingness to work, but there are no jobs.”

Even if the cities and their suburbs are where the jobs are, many rural welfare recipients do not want to--or cannot--move there. The cost of moving is too great, and they lack the necessary education and skills to earn more than a minimum wage. They believe that their children would be worse off in economically depressed urban areas, where they would probably have to live.

“When we ask the question: ‘Why don’t they move?’ we are ignoring that there’s much else besides jobs that get people through their lives,” said Janet Fitchen, an anthropologist at Ithaca College in New York. “Many poor people could not survive without their kin network.”

Donna Wade, a 23-year-old mother of four who lives in Itta Bena, another Mississippi Delta town south of Shelby, has such a network right where she is.

Wade said she has tried to get a job since she dropped out of high school in the 11th grade. She knows there are more jobs in Jackson, the state capital, where she regularly takes one of her children for medical treatments. But she said she cannot imagine moving there.

Although her house is modest and her resources scant in Itta Bena, she has a support system there. Her mother, who lives down the block, is especially involved in the rearing of her eldest son, who was born when Wade was only 13 and views his grandmother as a second mother. The father of her three younger children lives nearby and often takes care of them. She never lacks a helping hand in times of crisis.

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Wade, who has been on welfare for 10 years, said she and her friends are concerned about news reports that Clinton would limit benefits for two years.

“There are going to be a lot of frustrated people when they cut off AFDC checks,” she said. “If they cut AFDC, there ought to be someplace for us to work. I’ve been to McDonald’s, I’ve been to the (cat)fish plants. No jobs.”

Another goal of the Administration’s welfare reform effort, promoting two-parent families, also will bump up against harsh reality in the Delta, where many men can find only seasonal work at best and cannot support families. Although the father of her younger children wants to get married, Wade said, she does not.

“I’m not ready for marriage,” she said. “I feel I’m too young.” When pressed, she admitted that part of the reason is that her boyfriend has never held a steady job.

Wade’s response is a common one in areas of concentrated poverty, according to Cynthia Duncan, a professor at the University of New Hampshire who has been studying poor young adults in the Delta, Appalachia and New England for three years.

“Both men and women say they are not ready for marriage, even if they have a few children,” Duncan said. “It’s a very sensitive and difficult issue. People separate the decisions.”

In the Delta, she said, the remains of a racist social structure make it impossible for many young men to provide for families. When unskilled workers were no longer needed on the plantation, manufacturing plants moved South and hired them as cheap, non-union labor. But now many of those factories have closed, searching for still cheaper labor across the border with Mexico.

Left behind in Shelby are 3,000 people, many of them living in virtual shanties. Grocery store cash registers hold more food stamps than cash. The land that was cleared years ago and equipped with utilities for an industrial park is used as a baseball field. Lumber mills that once employed much of the town’s work force are abandoned.

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“Shelby used to be a thriving community,” said Gray, who is the town’s only black owner of a manufacturing company. “That’s changed as whites moved out. Blacks have become the greater part of the population--more than 90%--but blacks don’t go into business.”

Gray knows personally the challenges that await Shelby’s graduating high school seniors. He spent more than six years looking for financing for his Griffin Lamp Co. before the local bank opened a line of credit to him a few months ago. He was immediately able to double his staff to 30 and set a string of monthly sales records.

Robert Hunter, the new principal of Shelby’s Broad Street High School, said he is shocked by how poorly his students have been educated in the town’s elementary schools. “These people are way behind,” he said. “Somehow or another they have gotten left out in many areas of life.”

Bob Nash, U.S. undersecretary of agriculture for small community and rural development and a native of the Mississippi Delta, said he understands the many complicated reasons for poverty’s grip on Shelby and other towns across the Deep South.

“There are a number of reasons for the persistence of poverty in the South, including the vestiges of racism,” he said. “You don’t solve that problem overnight.”

Until recently, he said, there was no demand for educated workers in this largely forgotten corner of the United States.

“You didn’t need a cotton picker or factory worker to have a four-year degree or even a high school diploma,” he said. “Historically there has been under-investment in human capital in the region. It takes years to change that. There’s no magic wand.”

Nash said the Administration hopes to accelerate change through a range of initiatives that will provide federal money to help people start businesses.

“If you didn’t do anything else but welfare reform in rural areas, then you wouldn’t do much good,” said Nash, who was a state economic development official on the Arkansas side of the Delta when Clinton was that state’s governor.

But he acknowledged that moving people from welfare to work, which is so difficult in the nation’s cities, will be harder in off-the-beaten-track places such as this.

“It’s tougher because of isolation, because the TV cameras don’t go there,” he said. “It’s not on the national radar screen as much as the urban areas are. I want to have the whole country to pay attention to rural America. Rural America needs to be part of the American Dream.”


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