July 12, 2015


An opportunity gamed away : For a county in the Deep South that reaped millions from casino business, poverty is still its spin of the wheel (Chico Harlan,  July 11, 2015, Washington Post)

Her one-story house was slumping inch by inch, day by day, into the wet ground of the Mississippi Delta. Rot climbed up the wooden beams and mildew crept across the ceiling. Soft spots spread across the damp and buckling plywood floor. Holes opened up that led straight to the soil.

Linda Fay Engle-Harris, 60, had always tried to manage on her own, and so when she found new openings in the floor, she crumpled paper into tight wads and jammed them into the gaps. When she awoke to find slugs oozing across her living room, she fetched a dustpan, opened the front door, and gently ushered them back into what she called "their natural ecosystem." One night, when she grew particularly panicked about the future of her home, she handwrote four pages in a notebook left over from her teaching days, trying to gather her thoughts.

"My biggest fear," she wrote, "is that our house will collapse."

For two decades, ever since her county of plantations and shotgun shacks had struck it rich, she'd been awaiting the prosperity. Great jobs for all, she'd imagined. Improved living standards. Perhaps no place in America's Deep South had ever received a better chance to create new economic opportunities for its people. Starting in the early 1990s, Tunica had become a neon-lit casino destination. The county had since raked in $759 million, a fortune for a county with 10,000 people.

But as she worried about her house, Engle-Harris -- like many in Tunica -- was beginning to sense that the greatest windfall in the history of the rural South had failed to lift up a community where many African Americans still lived in crumbling shacklike homes.

Despite all the casino money, a county that ranked in the 1980s among the nation's poorest today had one of Mississippi's highest unemployment rates. A county lashed 30 years ago in a CBS News "60 Minutes" segment for its "apartheid" schools still had a mostly white private academy and a public school system that was 97 percent black and was given a "D" grade by the state. A county that the Rev. Jesse Jackson once described as "America's Ethiopia" had changed little in its poorest neighborhoods, even as riverfront casinos and other lavish development had sprouted up along the farmland hugging the Mississippi River.

Tunica's strike-it-rich narrative is a rarity in the Deep South. But the disappointing way it played out shows how fundamental -- and possibly intractable -- the problems are in an area that lags behind the rest of the country as the poorest region with the least economic opportunity. A major research study last year on upward mobility, measuring a poor child's chances of climbing the economic ladder, found that Tunica had less opportunity than all but six other counties in the United States -- scattered across Alaska, South Dakota and Virginia. The Deep South itself is home to more than half of the most punishing counties.

Posted by at July 12, 2015 8:23 AM

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