Economic Engines and Tunica

Economic engines bring money and jobs that continually create and distribute wealth.

What happens when you plop a big one into a poor Delta county?

Does it wipe out poverty and everyone lives happily ever after?

In 1980 the Census rated Tunica County the poorest in the nation with 53% of its population living in poverty. A few years later, the “Sugar Ditch” story portrayed the county as racially exploited and “America’s Ethiopia.”

Plop.

The first Casino arrived in 1992. Today, nine casinos make Tunica County the nation’s third largest gaming region with millions of visitors each year.

Post plop numbers show that:
• Population decline has turned to growth;
• The poverty rate has been cut in half;
• About 60% more county residents have jobs; and
• Median household income has nearly tripled.

“Before the casinos came, (Tunica) was almost like a ghost town. People just didn’t have hope,” Mack Williams, 51, a custodian at Sam’s Town casino, told Fortune Magazine in 2007. “Everybody’s got more hope now.”

The casinos – a big economic engine – brought opportunity and hope, the cornerstones of free-enterprise.

Yet poverty in Tunica County persists. At 25%, it is still double the national average. The unemployment rate is 12.1%. Most of the 12,000 casino employees commute from other counties and states. And, everyone is not happy. Just this month, WREG-TV in Memphis ran a story about wastewater from a trailer park running over open ground. A new “sugar ditch” one resident called it.

When Governor Haley Barbour announced in January that a $35 million state incentive package had landed a German steel pipe manufacturer for Tunica County, some questioned it. Why invest state funds in another economic engine for Tunica County if poverty persists?

My friend William Hatcher was in Haiti during the recent earthquake. He was there on a church sponsored mission trying to impact the “culture of poverty” that pervades that country.

“If you can’t change the culture, you can’t change anything,” he explains, saying he sees the same problem in much of the Delta.

Ford, Kellogg and other foundations working in this arena tell you cultural change is hard and takes generations. They know reducing poverty also takes committed leadership and a dynamic economy. The pipe plant, with its $32,000 high-tech jobs, will bring a more dynamic and vertical economy to Tunica County.

Hope strengthens when people see opportunities to move up the economic ladder, not just grab the first rung.

Tunica County’s journey has just begun. If the economy can stay strong and diversify, we will see if the hope and opportunity of free-enterprise can root out a culture of poverty.

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