Grassroots group calls for more funding, attention to Delta

Published 4:14 pm Friday, July 27, 2007

Members of a grassroots groups representing the impoverished Mississippi Delta say presidential candidates who visit the region need to bring ideas, not just cameras.

“Don’t come to our region and use us as a photo op,” said Lee Powell, executive director of the Mississippi Delta Grassroots Caucus.

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina visited Helena-West Helena this month to focus on poverty, but local leaders have been critical, saying Edwards should have spent more time in the region. The former senator spent less than 30 minutes there on his anti-poverty tour.

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Edwards supporters, including the director of Service Employees International Union Local 100, said the former senator was gracious and willing to listen.

“Alleviating poverty in America is the cause of John Edwards’ life, and the truth is that no one in this race has focused more on poverty, and no one will do more as president to address poverty than John Edwards,” said Colleen Murray, a spokeswoman for Edwards.

Powell said it was likely that the new president would have ties to the Delta, citing hopefuls Fred Thompson of Tennessee, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, former Arkansas first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama, whose southern Illinois constituency is part of the Delta.

Members of the caucus Thursday also criticized the Bush administration, saying that the Delta Regional Authority, which represents Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee, is getting short shrift in appropriations.

The caucus urged presidential hopefuls to be more mindful of the Delta’s needs.

“The (Bush) administration has failed the Delta, and at this point, we need to urge the Congress, and above all, the current presidential candidates to reverse the administration’s neglect,” Powell said.

The House has approved a $6 million budget for the organization; the Senate has passed a $12 million appropriation. The chambers will likely determine a final amount in a conference committee this fall.

Powell said the authority is expected to receive an additional $3 million from U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development.

Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., who represents eastern Arkansas, has criticized the agency for its administrative spending, but the congressman’s office has said Berry will support the Senate’s $12 million recommendation.

When the Delta Regional Authority was established in 2000 by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, it received a $30 million budget. Powell said it’s disheartening to see funding dwindle as poverty, poor infrastructure and social problems continue to mount in the Mississippi River Delta.

“We need to focus our nation’s leaders on the fact that this is a national issue, and not just a regional issue,” Powell said. “And if a chain is only as strong as its weakest leak, then the economy of the United States is being seriously held back by the weak link in the Delta.”

Desha County Judge Mark McElroy said that although Delta residents face serious problems, the region itself is full of resources. What could help the Delta is the passage of a farm bill that provides a decent safety net for farmers, he said.

“Surely one thing won’t cure all the ills in the Delta. I’ve been here too long,” McElroy said. “I’ll tell you one thing that really is important in the Delta — we’ve got the richest farm ground in the world. And when the farmers do well, so does the Delta.”

McElroy added: “Money’s not necessarily the answer to our woes in the Delta, but it sure beats whatever came in second.”

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