The Delta Grassroots Caucus (DGC) is a broad coalition of grassroots leaders in the eight-state Delta region. DGC is also a founding partner of the Economic Equality Caucus,
which advocates for economic equality across the USA.

Economic Data in the Delta Region's Recent History--Looking Ahead in 2010

Posted on January 11, 2010 at 05:27 PM

As we head into the new year, this is a good time to convey a summary of economic data for the recent history of the Greater Delta Region. The facts indicate that after some progress during the 1990s in the Delta, the period from 2001 to 2008 saw a sharp decline in the major economic indicators. It is also a fact that the recession has worsened the already troubling poverty, unemployment and population loss figures. It should be emphasized that in the Delta, in contrast to the national economy, the key economic indicators had already declined substantially in the earlier period from 2001 to 2004, and then continued to worsen during the recession.

There will be many different interpretations of these figures. However, each Presidential administration has to take the largest share of responsibility for the economic events that happen on their watch, because in the modern era the federal budgets begin with the executive branch and Presidents and their administrations are expected to exercise leadership over the economy. The President ultimately has to sign the budget bills into law. The Congress of each era also has to take a substantial share of the responsibility, since they vote on and amend the budgets.

As a factual matter, the poverty, unemployment, population loss and other key economic indicators demonstrated improvement during the Clinton administration from 1993 to 2001. The same indicators over the Bush administration from 2001 to the end of 2008 showed a marked decline. The administrations and Congresses of those eras cannot escape the factual record. People of different viewpoints may come up with explanations of why the facts turned out as they did, but the facts are the facts and we convey them below for your scrutiny.

It is too early to tell regarding the Obama administration’s economic record, since they inherited a severe recession. The economic stimulus and pending health care legislation had constructive provisions, but a huge amount of work remains to be done. By the end of next year, the Obama administration will have to begin to take a large share of responsibility for whatever the economic outcomes are after two years in office. We urge President Obama and his administration to devote more attention to the nation’s most economically distressed region from southern Illinois to New Orleans.

This data is tremendously important for the future, because it refutes the erroneous charges that are unfortunately often heard that “Gee, the Delta has always remained at the same level of poverty, decade after decade, with no change regardless of who is in power, so it is futile to expect any better results.” To the contrary, some periods showed substantial improvement and others showed substantial regress. IT MAKES A DIFFERENCE AS TO WHAT POLICIES ARE FOLLOWED, WHETHER PEOPLE ARE ACTIVE IN WORKING FOR THE REGION’S DEVELOPMENT, AND WHO OUR LEADERS ARE. STAY INVOLVED AND KEEP WORKING FOR THE DELTA’S DEVELEOPMENT–YOU MAKE A DIFFERENCE.

Data is primarily based on information from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Census Bureau, with additional data based on published reports of the Delta Regional Authority.


Poverty levels in the region from southern Illinois to southern Louisiana:

1997: 18.4%

2001: 16.6%

2004: 18.6%

2008: 19.8%

The national poverty rate in 2008–the year of a severe recession–was still only 13.2%, far superior to the Delta regional level.

Improvement from 1997-2001: From 1997 to 2001 in the second term of President Clinton, something very unusual happened regarding the Delta’s poverty level–it declined from 18.4% to 16.6%. The normal pattern is that the Delta’s poverty levels either remain stagnant or get worse.

Decline from 2001 to 2004: The poverty rate worsened from 16.6% in 2000 to 18.6% in 2004 in the Delta. This indicates that the economic decline in our region began long before the national decline.

Decline continues from 2004 to 2008: The decline worsened to 19.8% by December, 2008. Note that relatively speaking, the decline in the Delta was actually worse during the first term of the Bush administration. By manipulating the figures by looking at it from a percentage of decline standpoint, some people have argued that the Delta was not harmed by the recession as badly because the region was already depressed, so there was little or no difference. This is erroneous. The Delta was depressed before the recession and in most areas is in even worse condition now, although we are seeing some signs of revival.


Delta region in 1993: 7.5%

Delta region in January, 2000 4.2%

Delta region in 2008: 6.2%

Clearly the unemployment figures improved substantially from 1993 to 2001 and then declined substantially. However, these regional figures do not tell the full story, because they include the relatively prosperous urban areas in the region of Memphis, Little Rock, Jackson, Baton Rouge, Jonesboro, Cape Girardeau, Carbondale, all of which are not typical of the far more economically distressed smaller cities and rural areas.

Many of the heartland Delta rural counties in the region have suffered unemployment rates ranging from 12% to 21% during the recession.


1970 to 2005 Nationwide: 27% Delta: 34% (Seven percentage point differential between the Delta and national figures)

1990 to 2005 Nationwide: 28% Delta: 38% (10% differential between the Delta and national figures)

2000 to 2005 Nationwide: 44% Delta: 64% 20% differential between Delta and national figures

By far the greatest population decline loss took place during the period from 2001 to 2005.

Again, the population loss figures are even more disturbing for many of the heartland rural Delta counties:

Eleven of the 12 counties in the state of Mississippi that make up the Yazoo River Delta from Tunica to Issaquena in the south collectively lost 28,158 people since 2000–more than 10% of its population in eight years.

Tunica County is the exception, having grown 13% since 2000. Tunica has nine major casinos. If that helped the economy that is good, but all 252 counties in the current DRA region cannot become meccas for huge casinos.

In 1940, about 250,000 people lived in the six south Yazoo Delta counties (Humphreys, Issaquena, Sharkey, Bolivar, Sunflower and Washington); today about 140,000 people live there.

In the east Arkansas Delta counties of Phillips, Lee, Desha and Chicot, the population has declined by 10,567 people since 2000, a decline of 15.4%.

Ten of the 21 Delta counties in west Tennessee have lost populatioon. The predominantly rural west Tennessee counties’ population loss is in sharp contrast to the counties in the Memphis metropolitan area–Shelby, Tipton and Fayette counties.

The figures for population loss, unemployment and poverty rate obviously all became worse in the years from 2005 to 2009, with Hurricane Katrina and the recession being contributing factorss. What is surprising about these figures is that the decline was already so sharp between 2001 to 2005. National economic policy decisions have a huge impact on the Delta region. Draw your own conclusions about changing US economic policies in the different eras.

PER CAPITA INCOME, CHRONIC POVERTY, OTHER DATA (Based on data compiled by the Delta Regional Authority)

–The Delta poverty rate is 55% higher than the national rate. 250 of the 252 counties have per capita income levels at or below the national average.

–High school dropout rate is 20% higher than the national rate

–Single mother head of household families’ rate is 34% higher than the national level.

–10% of people in the Delta suffer from diabetes compared to 7% nationally. Delta residents suffer from disabilities almost 25% more than people in the rest of America.

–Compared with national rates, deaths in the Delta from circulatory diseases are 21.2: higher, deaths from cancer are 12.7% higher, deaths from accidents are 42% higher.

–In recent years the March of Dimes has reported that infant mortality rates in the region were almost 30% higher than the national rate.


We should emphasize that the Delta Regional Authority was NEVER conceived as a cure-alll for all the economic problems of the Delta. The agency is fundamentally a unifying force and an advocate for the region as a whole. This small, under-funded agency has managed to make some significant contributions to the region’s economic development in its short history.

The legislation creating the DRA was passed by a bipartisan coalition in Congress (with Rep. Marion Berry the original sponsor in the House and Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the Senate) and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 2000.

The Delta Regional Authority’s federal grant program funded 385 projects during its first six years, using $56 million of DRA funds. That $56 million leveraged $278 million of other federal funds and $1.2 billion of private funds.

It is estimated that this investment of more than $1.5 billion in the region has helped create or retain more than 32,000 jobs while providing drinking water and sewer services to almost 25,000 families. More than 6,300 Delta residents received job training due to this investment.

We should emphasize that the DRA has been hampered by small budgets in recent years. When it was founded the original budget was $30 million. The Bush administration constantly attempted to reduce the agency’s budget, at one point in 2004 succeeding in reducing the budget to $5 million and requesting the further budget cuts down to $2 million. Bipartisan leadership in Congress resisted those cuts and gradually increased the budget to $12 million by 2008.

The Obama administration’s first budget request for the DRA was $13 million, more than double what the Bush adnministration had consistently requested in the previous several years ($6 million) in the main pot of funding for regional commissions in the energy and water appropriations bill.

The administration also supported an additional amount of approximately $3 million channeled to the DRA area through USDA Rural Development.

All DRA funding is over and above the federal funding that the region normally receives.

The Delta Doctors Program has brought more than 100 doctors to underserved areas of the Delta region who would not have been there otherwise. This program does not cost any additional appropriations and is a stellar example of how innovation can bring about change without a huge expenditure of taxpayers’ dollars.

The Healthy Delta initiative and diabetes prevention: In 2005, the Delta Regional Authority board voted to devote almost $1 million to begin a diabetes education and prevention program called the Health Delta program. A major focus of the program is prevention of diabetes, which has soared to epidemic levels in the region. The key goals are:

–Educating Delta residents on the symptoms and dangers of diabeteS. –Getting people in the Delta region to do something about their diabetes by calling a toll-free number for more information and a referral. Special efforts are made to ensure the message does not miss hard-to-reach minority populations in the eight states served.

These DRA efforts are obviously on a very small scale compared to national health care legislation, but the DRA is on target in recognizing the tremendous importance of health care for the region’s economic future.

We don’t agree with the defeatist, fatalistic view that the Delta “always has been poor and always will be and there’s nothing we can do about it.” There are constructive activities under way in our region every day. Keep working. Thanks–Lee Powell, Delta Grassroots Caucus (202) 360-6347