The Poorest Place In America

Lake Providence's poverty is extreme and, despite civil rights progress, too familiar in the South

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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.

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