JONESTOWN — A round-trip car ride from here in northeast Coahoma County to Clarksdale, the county’s largest city, is 24 miles and takes about half an hour.

For many of the 1,200 residents of Jonestown, where two-thirds of children live below the federal poverty level, going to Clarksdale — the closest city to buy fresh produce, see a doctor or get a job — also costs you $20 a day if you don’t have a car of your own.

Otibehia Allen is one of them. Allen, a single mother of five, has to hitch rides to get to her part-time job at Aaron E. Henry Health Center Clarksdale.

“I don’t even see a cause for (Congress) to mess up something that was implemented a long time ago to help people to do better for themselves — and I am trying to do better for myself,” she said at a church here as civil rights pioneer Marian Wright Edelman visited Wednesday on her tour to highlight child poverty and food insecurity 50 years after U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy toured the Delta.

“It’s not easy raising five children alone,” Allen continued. “No you didn’t ask me to have them — true — but I chose to and that means that I’m responsible for these people.”

“And if you don’t put the resources here … resources that we already have — then what are we going to do?” Allen asked, referring to lawmakers considering steep cuts to long-established social safety and welfare programs such as SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) and Medicaid.

Kennedy, along with his colleague U.S. Sen-Joseph Clark, D-Pa., made the trip to Mississippi’s Delta at a time when more than half of the people in some counties lived in poverty. The fact-finding trip was made at the urging of Marian Wright, a young attorney who was the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi bar.

A South Carolina native, Wright was integral to civil-rights victories in Mississippi, working alongside Medgar and Myrlie Evers, Bob Moses of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., including on the Poor People’s Campaign, which started in Marks.

In 1973, after marrying a Kennedy aide, Marian Wright Edelman founded the Children’s Defense Fund to “defend civil liberties of people struggling to overcome poverty and discrimination.”

Edelman said Wednesday that it’s time for another campaign to end child poverty.

“It is absolutely disgraceful that we have 14.5 million poor children in the United States of America — with half of them living in extreme poverty — in the richest, most powerful economy in the world,” Edelman said. “That’s not right and we should not let that happen.”

Poverty: A social problem and a medical problem

Edelman, now 78, believes there has been progress on several fronts in the past five decades. Mississippi now has the most black elected officials of any state in the nation. Since becoming the first black woman admitted to the bar, she has seen the numbers of African American attorneys, physicians and other professionals increase.

In Mississippi, poverty rates and hunger continue to exceed state and national averages but have gone down since Edelman’s first trips to the state. Three of the counties she and Kennedy toured — Coahoma, Quitman and Tallahatchie — had an average poverty rate of 47.5, according to 1970 Census data. Today, the people living in poverty in those counties is 32.8 percent.

Edelman would later tell a historian that the 1967 Delta tour “set in motion a chain of events that culminated in years later in the virtual elimination of hunger in America during the Nixon years.”

However, hunger and malnourishment have been replaced by food insecurity and obesity.

Feeding America, a national nonprofit that studies food insecurity, which the group defines as limited or uncertain access to healthy meals, estimates that 2,420 people in Quitman County are food insecure, more than 30 percent of the county’s population. That is more than twice the national average of 13.4 percent. Read more Mississippi details in the report here.

Dr. Barbara Ricks Sims, a Greenville pediatrician, said poverty is both a social problem and a medical problem. Credit: R.L Nave, Mississippi Today

Dr. Barbara Wicks Sims, a pediatrician who grew up in Glendora and now practices in Greenville, said her poor patients are not getting a fair shot at life.

Poor children are more likely to have health problems and exposure to toxic stress, which often leads to behavioral problems, and are more likely to remain in poverty, she said. Sims recalled a conversation with one mother, who said she would just feed her kids junk because she cannot afford the healthier foods Sims recommended.

“Poverty is a social problem, but its also a medical problem,” she said. “We shouldn’t accept it in the richest country in the world. It’s just not right.”

Poverty’s lasting impact

A charter bus on which Edelman was riding, along with journalists, present and past state lawmakers and advocates, slowed as it passed the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler.

Oleta Fitzgerald, the executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Southern Regional Office, pointed to the prison, which the state of California now owns and leases to a private firm to manage, and says: “There are your jobs in Tallahatchie County.”

“We need to shut down every one of them,” Edelman retorted, referring to private prisons.

In part because of the presence the 2,672-bed maximum security prison, compared to other Delta counties, Tallahatchie enjoys low unemployment, poverty and food insecurity. Still, Fitzgerald says the prison is one example of wrong-headed jobs and economic policy.

“When loss of jobs in rural America comes up, it is a conversation about white males. There is another rural America and it’s a lot of women, a lot of women heads of household. We have this never-ending conundrum of school systems that are not producing young people who can demand good jobs and those who can are leaving,” Fitzgerald said.

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Meanwhile, federal statistics show that barely a dent has been made to decrease unemployment or to raise incomes in these counties in the past half century. For example, Coahoma County’s unemployment rate in 1970, three years after the Delta tour, was 7.7 percent. Today, it’s 7.2 percent.

Median household income in Coahoma County was $4,304 in 1970 (worth $27,650.24 in buying power in today’s dollars). Today, median household income there is is only slightly higher, at $28,852.

Edelman with Don Green, executive director of the nonprofit Mississippi Delta Council For Farm Workers Opportunities Credit: R.L. Nave, Mississippi Today

Don Green, executive director of the Mississippi Delta Council For Farm Workers Opportunities, a nonprofit that provides training and other support services for temporary farm workers, says poverty in the Delta once exceeded 70 percent. With the help of federal programs, he notes that poverty has dropped precipitously but, inexplicably, has “flatlined” at the 30 percent threshold.

“Sometimes poverty has lasting impact on certain families and I think this 30 percent (poverty rate) is the lasting result of previous years of poverty,” Green said.

“If you can get the education of the parent to the next level, the children will be fine,” he added. “That’s where we are having trouble now — homes where these parents didn’t have opportunities to move to the next level in education. Therefore, the income remains the same and, sometimes, the children are impacted by that.”

A call to action

Despite the gains in Mississippi and elsewhere, Edelman believes that proposed cuts at the federal level and inaction by state legislatures could roll back some of that progress.

Sen. Robert Kennedy, D-N.Y., (center) reaches to shake the hand of a Catholic nun as he is surrounded by elementary students during his inspection into the anti-poverty program in Mississippi, at Greenville, on April 11, 1967. Credit: AP File Photo

Fifty years ago, when she toured the Delta with Kennedy, The New York Times reported that Mississippi could have received $70 million from the federal government for poverty programs by putting up $15 million in matching funds, but state officials declined.

“All the Negroes I’ve seen around here are so fat they shine,” then-Gov. Paul B. Johnson Jr. told reporter Bill Minor at the time when asked about reports from Kennedy’s trip about rampant malnourishment and the need for additional money to combat hunger.

Dr. Robert Smith, a pioneering physician from Jackson, recalled urging President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 to twist the arms of southern states by threatening to cut off Title 19 funds, which established Medicare and Medicaid, programs that provide health care for the elderly and poor. Mississippi passed legislation to create its Medicaid program in 1969, one of the last states to do so.

“Now, I hope we have enough common sense to know that we’ve all learned to live through Medicare and Medicaid, community health centers and all the programs that have brought about in child health,” Smith said. “Eventually I believe we’re going to come to a single-payer (health-care system) but until that happens we need to do whatever we need to do to protect what we have.”

Edelman says it’s unconscionable that states, including Mississippi, have refused to expand Medicaid programs or apply for money that could be used for summer feeding programs. She estimates that some 90 percent of children who are eligible for summer meals do not receive them because organizations fail to apply for funding.

Former journalists recap Robert Kennedy’s 1967 Delta Poverty Tour

She and Smith agree that citizens should pressure public officials to protect those programs.

“I am very pleased that Mississippi can boast the greatest number of black elected officials in the nation, but let’s be sure that we hold accountable how that Mississippi delegation votes,” she told an audience in the gym at Madison S. Palmer High School in Marks.

“Make clear that we’re going to put you out of office if you vote to destroy the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid and CHIP (the Children’s Health Insurance Program). Use your power to say no — hold them accountable.”

Delta poverty, food insecurity still worse than state, U.S. averages

Contributing: Alex Rozier

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Ryan L. Nave, a native of University City, Mo., served as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief from May 2018 until April 2020. Ryan began his career with Mississippi Today February 2016 as an original member of the editorial team. He became news editor August 2016. Ryan has a bachelor’s in political science from the University of Missouri-Columbia and has worked for Illinois Times and served as news editor for the Jackson Free Press.