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.

Summary of Efforts to Address the Delta's Regional Development, 1990s to the Present

Posted on March 19, 2024 at 02:36 PM

“A Short Summary of Efforts to address community and economic development in the Delta, 1990s to the Present”

News of the closing of the iconic First Baptist Church in Helena has prompted a great deal of comments regarding the Greater Delta Region in general. This is one of the grand old beautiful churches of the South and we are saddened to hear of its closing.

Former DRA Alternate Federal Co-Chair Rex Nelson made a statement on Facebook that it was sad that the great First Baptist Church of Helena was closing, and this was an example of population loss in the region. Nelson’s comment was factual, but some other comments on Facebook were derogatory concerning the efforts to improve the region over the past three decades.

The naysayers who bash those who are working to help the region are part of the problem, and they should join the effort for progress rather than dismissing our efforts.

In particular, we believe the statement on Facebook that “nothing ever came” of the Clinton administration’s Delta regional initiative after one press conference in 1999 is totally erroneous.

Caucus Director Lee Powell was among the Presidential appointees in the Clinton administration who worked for a strong focus on the Delta—always recognizing that we should not make unrealistic promises, given the 200 years of melancholy legacy in slavery, Jim Crow and the mistaken policy of attracting big plants with cheap labor that soon left for even cheaper markets elsewhere. ​

There were some accomplishments in spite of the difficulties both in the Clinton administration and later years, however, so it is not all gloom and doom.

The policies of the Clinton administration were geared to helping middle class to lower-income families, of which we have many in the Delta, so that was constructive for the Delta. A diversified policy of generating many small to medium-sized businesses and broad-based economic growth is far wiser than the outdated policies.

Status-quo oriented forces opposed our efforts, but the administration’s Delta Regional Initiative gained momentum from about 1995 onward and eventually led to the most intensive focus on the Delta of any Presidential administration in history by 1998-2000.

We know the results were limited but we had the fortitude to make the effort—and many people warned us not even to try because the problems were so immense.​

Kevin Smith, former mayor of Helena, aide to the late US Sen. Dale Bumpers, and long-time Delta advocate, cites two recent examples of constructive projects in Helena based on initiatives begun in the Clinton era–DRA and New Markets Tax Credit:

The Delta Regional Authority provided funding to Helm Fertilizer for a paved road to their Helena slackwater harbor site that will add 50 jobs;

In 2022, Poinsett Grain and Seed (which located at Helena in 2020) received New Markets Tax Credit funding to expand their site, helping their constructive activities related to barge traffic and shipping grain.

Smith acknowledged that they have significant population loss (population is now approximately a little under 10,000) and does not deny the difficult issues his area faces, but he also stressed that “There have been some good, constructive projects done here along with the challenges we face, and those have not been accurately portrayed or discussed.”

This is a relatively short summary we present here–A comprehensive survey would take a report along the lines of the Clinton administration’s Delta Report, which is available on the Delta Caucus website at at the link that says “Delta Vision, Delta Voices.” This was nonpartisan and included many contributions from Republicans, Independents and Democrats.

Some quick facts on the Delta: Here is a short list of some key facts about efforts to support community and economic development in the Delta over the years:

The Clinton administration, the later Delta Grassroots Caucus from the early 2000s and other advocates never claimed we were going to suddenly bring about prosperity in a region that has had serious economic problems after 200 years of counterproductive policies. I know how serious the problems are, seeing them in my work every day.

As one of the three managers for the administration’s Delta Regional Initiative (I was based at USDA; the others were Wilson Golden of Mississippi and the late Al Eisenberg at US DOT), we said we would fight hard against poverty in our region but never promised a quick, magical turn-around, always being realistic enough about how severe the problems are.

2) During the Clinton administration, economic indicators DID improve—unemployment was 7.5% in 1993 for the region and declined to 4.5% by 2000, and poverty levels were reduced by 10% from 1996 to 2001. The indicators were at least headed in the right direction, although the issues remained very challenging. Clinton (or any President) can’t be held responsible for what happened later, but the record on his watch was solid.

3) The Delta Regional Authority was created in 2000, after naysayers and defenders of the status quo had blocked it for many years. From a low of $5 million in the early 2000s, we have fought to increase its budget by 6 times to today’s DRA budget of $30 million, and we will work to get it much bigger to the best of our ability.

The regional economic indicators declined again in the Bush years—partly due to national and international economic trends, partly due to lessened federal emphasis on the region, but Clinton can’t be responsible for what happened under later administrations, although the Delta Caucus and others have continued to work on these issues, sometimes with disappointing results, sometimes with limited progress.

The DRA did continue during the Bush administration with Alternate Federal Co-Chair Rex Nelson and others doing a lot of good, hard work and that is to the Bush administration’s credit. We all know that much more needs to be done.

Mike Marshall of Missouri followed up with more diligent and effective work as DRA Alternate Federal Co-Chair in the Obama administration. Current DRA officials are duly carrying on in that constructive tradition.

An individual named Chuck Martin whom we do not know stated that Clinton gave a speech in 1999 about revitalizing the Delta and that was most or all he did and “nothing ever came of it,” but in fact the administration held a series of listening sessions all up and down the Delta and passed legislation based on the recommendations, including the bill creating the Delta Regional Authority that was signed into law in late 2000, after encountering resistance from status-quo forces in the region and without.

We make no claim that the DRA is a panacea for all the Delta’s problems. But it does constructive work every year: for example, in FY 2022, DRA and leveraged funds led to;

–$46 million investments in the Delta,

–with 1,841 jobs created or retained,

–1,228 people in training programs, and

–41,878 families affected. This is not a huge impact, but it is real and constructive.

The DRA has operated for over two decades now and they continue to turn out these constructive projects year after year.

4) There were innovations from the beginning of the Clinton administration in 1993 including Enterprise Communities and Empowerment Zones, in later administrations Renewal Communities and related innovations regarding community planning and local collaborations to promote community and economic development.

As one example, one fourth of all the Empowerment Zones and Enterprise Communities across the country were located in the Delta in 1993 in the first round of EZ/EC and additional Delta organizations were set up in a later round. Many of them still operate.

Infrastructure: There were many infrastructure projects in transportation, housing, water and sewer, and other fields in the Clinton years and afterward. There are so many of these it would take a tome to list all of them, but here are a few highlights and for those who want to look at it in depth you can go on the website at and go to the link that says “Delta Vision, Delta Voices,” at the top of the site and then go to the link in the table of contents that says “Infrastructure.”

At USDA Rural Development, where I served as senior adviser to the Under Secretary, there was an expansion in these programs during the Clinton administration:

–Telephone service was provided for the first time to 8,200 rural, primarily low-income residents;

–77,000 Delta residents received improved telecommunications;

–$9.8 million was invested to provide distance learning and telemedicine for 800,000 residents in the region.

–The Departments of Commerce, Energy, DOT, EPA and HUD provided expanded rural water projects, energy supply and delivery and solid waste management.

5) Health care and nutrition: There was an expansion of Food Stamps use and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, and the five Delta states (Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Kentucky and Illinois) joined the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program in the 1990s.

State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), Centers for Disease Control, and USDA Rural Development Community Facilities health care activities were expanded in recognition of the serious health care and hunger and nutrition issues related to the Delta’s high rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other maladies.

Other leaders and organizations have followed up since then. Of course there are many critics as well as supporters of Obamacare in general, but there is no question it did help some lower-income people in the Delta.

Gov. Sanders of Arkansas recently backed a summer EBT program in Arkansas and we have commended her for that. Hunger and nutrition work has traditionally been bipartisan and we are glad to see Gov. Sanders continue in that tradition.

The Clinton administration Delta report was based on specific policy recommendations and factual comments about current Delta issues. We made no grandiose promises that we were going to solve all the Delta’s problems, only that we were going to make an honest effort.

6) A major part of the Clinton administration report was written NOT by myself or other Clinton administration officials, but by Members of Congress and governors from the Delta states from both parties, nonprofits, community-minded business leaders, faith-based institutions and other constructive forces.

Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and other Republicans contributed excellent statements to the report.

The rest of the report from all the federal agencies with domestic policy duties were largely written by nonpolitical career officials. I edited most of it (NOT the parts by other leaders and organizations) and wrote some parts of it, but it was an effort by many people.

President Clinton knew that the report by itself meant little or nothing unless it was followed up by action, and in his introduction to the report emphasized that this report is a “handbook for action that any concerned citizen can use to make a difference.” The creation of DRA and the other accomplishments were actions, although we never claimed they were a cure-all and knew how severe the challenges were.

Clinton also stressed that “I am especially grateful for the thoughtful contributions of so many grassroots leaders and organizations from the region who are the true and powerful voices of the Delta.”

Anybody who claims that this was an overblown whitewash with unrealistic promises is sadly mistaken. I was a newspaperman before the Clinton administration and later a lawyer, so I knew not to overdo a document that was going to have massive scrutiny.

As for the speeches in 1999 and 2000, President Clinton is enthusiastic and upbeat, and he was generating political momentum for the passage of the DRA bill and other legislation that was pending. Anything resembling a defeatist, fatalistic attitude would have been destructive. But he realistically emphasized the continuing serious problems—how could he ask for legislation like the DRA if he said everything was rosy in the region?

The Delta Caucus is a volunteer grassroots advocacy coalition with many Republicans, Democrats and Independents working together and we have worked hard in the decades since 2000. We have fought for the DRA and other issues over the years, from the time in the 2000s when some politicians tried to abolish it or slash its funds, and it is now up from $5 million to $30 million. There are the other accomplishments that we referred to and again the DRA is not the whole initiative.

We make no promises other than our commitment to advocate to the best of our ability for the region’s community and economic progress.

Anyone who would like to take a closer look at our activities you are welcome to go to the Delta Grassroots Caucus conference in Little Rock on May 30-31, 2024, with the main session on May 31 at the Clinton Library. Details will be available as we get closer to the time on the website at Thank you. Lee Powell, Executive Director, Mississippi Delta Grassroots Caucus (202) 360-6347