ITTA BENA – Federal workers continue to face working without pay or minimal pay as the partial government shutdown hits its 25th day — the longest shutdown in U.S. history. But, while the government continues its shutdown, residents in the Mississippi Delta have faced economic hardships for decades – low pay, scattered jobs and limited affordable housing options.
In Itta Bena, a town of more than 1,800, where the median household income is around $19,000, 44 percent of people live in poverty, according to Census data. The unemployment rate in Mississippi stands at 4.1 percent, but 14 Delta counties exceed that amount. In Leflore County, where Itta Bena is located, the unemployment rate is 5.9 percent.
It’s here that Jerome Powell, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, will make his first trip to the Mississippi Delta to speak on the financial hardships of areas with persistent poverty in America — areas like Itta Bena — and offer solutions to closing financial gaps.
“I think it says a lot about the importance of this issue to (Powell). …We felt it was important people in the Delta and from places like the Delta to see someone who is in a position as important as the chairman to get out of Washington to not just go to the money centers in New York or Chicago or Silicon Valley,” said William (Bill) Bynum, CEO of HOPE Enterprise Corporation, a community development financial institution, in a phone call with Mississippi Today.
“But come to heart of the country, where people are struggling with gaps, the economic disparities have widened in our country and here. These places are important, and he wants to be a part of the solution.”
The region has made strides thanks to investments by organizations, foundations, and community members, but poverty and its effects remain.
“I’m proud that they’re coming to the Mississippi Delta and at some point we will make it an oasis instead of what it has been,” said Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood.
“People need to know our story and the consequences we had to go through and how many of us are persevering through civil rights and other alternatives to make life better for everybody …. for the next generation of African Americans who have suffered from racism and we have suffered the most. We have made this land richer … No other Americans have done what African Americans have done especially in the deep South when cotton was king.”
With the region’s challenges in mind, HOPE invited Powell, representatives from Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Walton Family Foundation, and other national leaders from banking, philanthropy, and community development organizations to speak at the its rural policy forum — “Rural Places, Rural Spaces: Closing Financial Service Gaps in Persistent Poverty America,” at Mississippi Valley State University on Feb. 12.
(Disclosure: The Walton Family Foundation and Bill and Hope Bynum have been financial contributors to Mississippi Today)
HOPE works to assist in improving and strengthening economically challenged communities in distressed parts of Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee, by providing financial services and resources.
The forum is designed to “stimulate solutions for communities that exist on the economy’s edge, where the development degree of difficulty is high, and where financial resources are limited,” a news release stated.
Despite the national poverty rate declining, now at 14 percent, Mississippi’s rate continues to climb the most in the U.S., with 20.8 percent of Mississippians living in poverty, based on a three-year average between 2014 and 2016. The state also has the lowest median household income — $41,754.
This is why investing in places with persistent poverty is paramount, said Bynum. And being able to increase financial mobility in places like Itta Bena is a part of the work HOPE does.
And now, celebrating 25 years, the organization wanted to host a forum where “national leaders, public officials, foundations” not just talk about the financial gaps in poverty stricken areas, but “increase investment in these areas and be part of the solution,” said Bynum.
“We’ve seen when people of influence are intentional, they are making a difference. And in places like Itta Bena …. We’ve seen bank branches closing in record numbers … challenges with health care, and in each of those cases, they need financial tools to change those conditions,” said Bynum.
Besides health care and banking services, people need affordable housing, education, and simply, to be able to “support their family and contribute to the local economy,” he added.
“We all know the history of the Mississippi Delta, the good, bad and the ugly. We (African Americans) are Americans, and we have paid our dues,” said Jordan.
“Good people … many of them have died and worked all of their lives but died due to the lack of health care and opportunities and the life of not getting a good education to know how to preserve themselves for longevity.”
There will be a civil rights tour at 1 p.m on Feb 11. Immediately following the tour, Journalist Jerry Mitchell, founder the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, will moderate a discussion on civil rights and community development in the 21st Century.
Registration fee for the conferences ranges from $75 to $100.