What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Rural Poverty

Gurley, Lauren
Date Written:  2017-03-27
Publisher:  In These Times
Year Published:  2017
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX20534

Gurly analyzes the institutional reasons behind widespread poverty, depopulation, and unemployment in Jefferson County, Mississippi.



During the 20th century, Jefferson County lost more than two-thirds of its population, which peaked at 21,000 in 1900. Apart from Fayette, the county is made up of seven unincorporated communities and a handful of ghost towns. A Google search of "Jefferson County, Mississippi" returns few hits, aside from a few websites about Southern history and genealogy and the homepage of the county government.

For L.C. Whistle, 60, who was born and raised in Jefferson County, it's clear what caused the exodus. "There ain't been no jobs," he says. These days he collects and sells old car parts and machinery to recycling plants. In the 1960s, residents remember, one of the county's largest employers, an auto dealership, moved away. More than 40 years later, the county has yet to attract new industry. This leaves most residents with three options: Leave, take a minimum wage job or (like Whistle) find informal work. "You might make enough to live," says Whistle, "but you ain’t gonna get rich."

Sheriff Peter E. Walker, who is Black and has served Jefferson County for six consecutive four-year terms, argues that chronic poverty in Jefferson County is a symptom of the community's low work ethic and dependence on welfare. "Those who really want to work--they do work, even if they have to go out of town to work," Walker tells In These Times. "But then we have those who really don't desire to work, they just hang out on government assistance, do whatever they can to make a dollar. Drug dealing is some of it."

In 2011, 31 percent of Jefferson County residents received food stamps, compared to 14 percent nationally. The jail incarceration rate in Jefferson County is more than 19 times the national average, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.

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