The Poorest Place In America

  • The town has no public parks or swimming pools, no movie theaters, no shopping malls, not even a McDonald's or a Wal-Mart. In fact, business in Lake Providence, Louisiana, is so bad that even the pawnshop has shut down. "The only recreation we have," says a resident, "is poor people's fun: drinking, drugs, fighting and sex." Restless teenagers mill around narrow streets lined with burned-out houses and dilapidated trailer parks. "We've got all the problems they have in New York and Chicago, but nothing to fight them with," says Mayor James W. Brown Jr. If there is a poorer place in America, the Census Bureau cannot find it.

    No community in the country needs help more -- and Lake Providence has turned to God and Washington for assistance. One Sunday evening not long ago, 400 of the town's 5,500 people gathered for a gospel concert. "Weeping may endure for the night! But if you hold on, joy -- joy! -- is coming in the morning!" shouted one singer, paraphrasing the 30th Psalm. The crowd broke down in tears and fervent amens. This summer the town, joined by two almost equally destitute communities in neighboring Mississippi and Arkansas, submitted its application to have the area declared a federal "empowerment zone." If they succeed, tax breaks and grants worth $100 million will shower down on this neglected corner of the rural South. "We ought to qualify if anyone does, since there's no place that's worse off than we are here," says James Schneider, president of a local bank.

    Lake Providence is an extreme but not atypical example of the ambivalent legacy of the Freedom Summer of 30 years ago, when hundreds of volunteers, both black and white, went south to promote the cause of racial justice. That effort helped trigger the passage of civil rights laws that overthrew long- standing patterns of racial oppression in little towns like Lake Providence all across the South. Yet today for every sign of progress there is a sign of stagnation, or even regression. Blacks can elect their own to political office, but economic power remains largely in the hands of the white minority. Restaurants serve everyone, but many blacks cannot afford them. Schools are officially desegregated, but few classes are racially mixed. Thirty years ago, Lake Providence blacks could hope their lot would improve. Today, despite the passage of laws and the passage of time, they seem even worse off than they were.

    The 1990 census found that the median annual household income in Block Numbering Area 9903, which covers the southern two-thirds of Lake Providence and three-quarters of its population, was only $6,536 -- less than half the official poverty level of $14,764 for a family of four and the lowest in the U.S. Two years later, a Children's Defense Fund study found that in East Carroll Parish, where Lake Providence is located, 70.1% of children younger than 18, or 2,409, were living in poverty, the highest rate in the nation -- and this amid staggeringly high rates of infant mortality, teenage pregnancy and drug use.

    Meanwhile, jobs are scarce, low paying and seasonal. For most of the year, | hundreds of families subsist on welfare: a single mother with one child gets $123 a month, a family of five, $370. For many the only available work is backbreaking minimum-wage jobs in the nearby cotton fields. Some older men, like John Henry Jackson, don't seem to do much but stand around drinking and swapping stories about the old days, when they worked on the farm and "followed some funky-ass mules all day long, smelled just like 'em and didn't get no money."

    Inevitably, almost everyone who can escape from Lake Providence does so. "I'd rather shoot myself than stay here. It would be a wasted life," says Karva Henderson, who graduated from Lake Providence's high school in June. She plans to go to college and wants never to return.

    The urge to flee is more urgent because staying behind often leads to tragedy. Such was the fate of Calvin Jones, who until last spring was one of Lake Providence's most promising young men. At 18, he was not only an honor student and a track and football star, but also a serious churchgoer who taught Sunday school and composed rap songs urging younger children to stay out of trouble. For Martin Luther King Day last year, his classmates and teachers chose him for keynote speaker. "I just talked about accomplishing your goals and not falling prey to society," Jones remembers. "I talked about the importance of having God in your life and the importance of getting your education. I told them to strive 110% for the goals that they want to accomplish, and don't become another victim."

    Less than 48 hours later, Jones became another sad twist in the sorry history of Lake Providence. On the evening after his speech, Jones got together with Charles Reed, 19, a young man who was everything that Jones was not: a heavy boozer and drug user filled with sullen rage. Reed had never liked his do-gooder schoolmate Jones. "I wanted to hurt that dude the first time I seen him," Reed recalls. "It's just something about people I have when I first see them. I just don't like them." Yet on that night enmity dissolved in a haze of malt liquor, and somebody got an idea. Along with another young man, Jones and Reed wound up at the high school, and the school ended up in flames.

    Calvin Jones stood among the crowd of onlookers as the blaze demolished the school. "When I saw the school burning, tears just came rolling down my face," he says. "My father went to that school, and three of my brothers had graduated from there, and I was getting ready to graduate."

    Three months later, Jones, Reed and another teenager were arrested for arson. All three were tried and convicted; Jones and Reed were sentenced to prison; the other youth was released because he is a juvenile. Why did they do it? "There was no reason," says Calvin. "I'm just sorry I didn't do more to stop it." Perhaps it was just another attempt to change the bitter reality of Lake Providence.

    The question for Lake Providence is how much $100 million in tax breaks, job-training subsidies and other federal grants could change the desperate life of its people. The complex economic and social factors that have sunk the town in misery have been in place since the days of slavery. After the Civil War, freed slaves stayed on as sharecroppers and independent farmers, but after World War II the widespread use of farm machinery destroyed thousands of agricultural jobs. At the same time, plantation owners resisted industrial development that could have brought new jobs and higher wages.

    As a result, East Carroll Parish lost nearly half its population after 1940, shrinking from more than 19,000 to 9,800 and depriving Lake Providence of potential black leaders -- people like William Jefferson, who left to become a Harvard Law School graduate and a Congressman from New Orleans, and Charles Jones, who is now a member of the state senate.

    Meanwhile, the absence of jobs and talent has only served to reinforce the age-old Southern pattern of white authority and black subservience. "We've still got a lot of people working in white folks' kitchens or driving tractors," says Mayor Brown. "They're afraid to speak up for themselves because they're afraid of losing their jobs. They still have to say, 'Yassir, whatever you say.' "

    Though black voters outnumber whites 2 to 1 and constitute majorities in most local government districts as the result of a long-running voting-rights case, their political power is limited. They control the poorly funded town government, but whites outnumber them 6 to 3 on the parish Police Jury (comparable to a county board of supervisors), which controls the bulk of local government spending. Blacks have not capitalized on their political opportunities, says the Rev. C.H. Murray, a Baptist minister, because "there's still a lot of slave mentality here, people thinking they should wait on the Lord to solve our problems." According to local leaders, easily intimidated black voters sometimes sell their votes.

    ; Many whites believe their hold on power is the bulwark that keeps Lake Providence from descending into barbarity. "We don't have any colored leadership," says Captan Jack Wyly, a lawyer and prominent power broker who says he understands the blacks because long ago his ancestors owned theirs. "When I came home from the Army in 1945, 20% to 25% of our land was owned by blacks. But the welfare system has just undermined the incentive to work. When Daddy died, they'd sell their property, buy a Buick and go out West to Las Vegas or somewhere. They lost their work ethic; they lost their discipline with all this gimme stuff. Who would have thought that Negro girls would get pregnant to get on food stamps? Now they do it all the time." Wyly's biggest fear is that whites will be infected by what he considers black amorality. "Goddam, if we have two races exploding, that's the end of America!"

    And if Washington makes Lake Providence part of an empowerment zone, what would it do for the town? Drawn from ideas submitted by average citizens, the plan is an ambitious mixture of the grandiose and the mundane. It envisages using federal tax breaks to attract a factory that could employ hundreds of unskilled workers. It proposes making Lake Providence the economic hub of the entire region by creating a "one-stop capital shop," a lending office where small businesses from across the country could apply for federal loans. It also foresees using the area's proximity to the Mississippi and many beautiful lakes as the basis for tourism.

    These ideas strike local skeptics as overly ambitious and doomed to fail. "Just wait until the mosquitoes start bitin', and see how many tourists you get," scoffs Wyly. Emmanuel Osagie, the Southern University economist who drew up the proposal, believes that such objections are beside the point. "I don't think that in an area like this you can raise people's expectations too high," he says. "We know that the empowerment zone won't solve all our problems, but it can be a start. The problem here is to get people to believe that things can really get better. People here have been looking down at the ground for so long that all they can see is their feet."