New Miss. initiative aims to improve Delta region

Published 2:43 pm Friday, June 5, 2009

After numerous studies and millions of dollars in federal and charitable funding, little has changed in the impoverished Mississippi Delta over the past few decades.

A task force created by the Mississippi Legislature to find solutions to the region’s persistent poverty says a new proposal may be the tool that’s needed to spur economic development and improve the Delta’s health and education systems.

The key, task force members say, will be cooperation among grassroots organizations, legislators and other state leaders.

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“There’s a challenge being issued,” said Rep. John Hines, a Democrat from Greenville and a task force member. “Don’t allow this plan to cause you to scatter and run for cover.”

The report released Wednesday included four goals for the Delta — increasing the number of residents with college degrees, removing health disparities, putting the unemployed on career paths and establishing the region as a national center for creative arts.

The plan called for the creation of a “strategic compact” by marshaling the efforts of nonprofits, state agencies and other entities. Task force chairman Robert Clark of Ebenezer, a former state legislator, said the panel will begin in the next few months to reach out to nonprofits that are already working on Delta initiatives.

To put more residents on track to a college degree, the plan proposes a strategy based on a North Carolina program that lets students earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in five years.

Promoting disease prevention in schools to educate children and their parents about the benefits of healthy eating and physical activity would help attack the health disparities, according to the report, “A Time of Reckoning.”

The task force spent three years researching and gathering data for the report, which was compiled by MDC, a consulting firm based in Chapel Hill, N.C.

It paints a dismal picture of the Delta where unemployment rates in 2008 ranged from 10 percent to 17 percent in some counties, and the rate was over three times higher for blacks than whites. Almost 18 percent of the adult population has less than a 9th-grade education.

Health disparities remain a problem. The rate of those dying from heart disease in the Delta was 17.5 percent higher than the Mississippi average, and 31.2 percent higher than the nation as a whole in 2007, the report said.

Seven out of 10 Mississippi counties with the highest prevalence of diabetes are located in the Delta.

The state’s teen pregnancy problem is also rooted in the Delta. The majority of the region’s 18 counties have a teen pregnancy rate of about 20 percent, the report said.

“Whatever has gone on in the Delta, it hasn’t helped the Delta. The condition is getting worse,” said Robert Clark, a former legislator and chairman of the task force.