Leflore County is one of the nation’s most disadvantaged communities, according to a collaborative report produced by researchers from Princeton University and the University of Michigan.

Findings from their study were released earlier this year by Michigan’s Poverty Solutions and Princeton’s Center for Research on Child Wellbeing.

The study, which can be viewed online at bit.ly/2PzRGrh, identified Leflore County as the seventh most disadvantaged community in the country. Holmes County is rated fifth, and Claiborne, Issaquena and Coahoma counties all made the top 10. Also making the list are four counties from South Dakota and another from Louisiana.

The report indexes all counties in the country as well as the 500 largest cities from most disadvantaged to most advantaged based on three interconnected indicators of disadvantage. These are income level, such as the rate of poverty and deep poverty in a community; health, including average life expectancy and the percentage of low birth weights; and a measure of people’s social mobility, or their ability to improve their lives.

“The way that the two lead investigators designed the study was to think about all the different ways we measure disadvantages,” explained Ryan Parsons, a Princeton University doctoral candidate in social policy and sociology who contributed to the report and has been living in Greenwood temporarily. “You could be poor; you could be overweight; you could be a child in a poor family struggling to go to college; you could be pregnant and have a premature birth.”  

The study found that high levels of disadvantaged communities are often clustered together and more likely to be found in rural areas.

The top five regions in the country that feature numerous disadvantaged communities include the Mississippi Delta, the Cotton Belt, Appalachia, tribal nation lands, towns along the Texas-Mexico border, and cities in the Rust Belt.

In Leflore County, the report, drawing on census and administrative data, found that 40.3% of the county’s population lives in poverty and 23.9% lives in deep poverty.

The life expectancy is 71.5 years, and 14.6% of infants born have low weights.

Parsons started working on the report in September.

His role has been to “put stories to those numbers” by interviewing low-income families in the area as well as local experts. Through his interviews, he found several themes among residents that make life difficult in Leflore County.

One of those themes is access to transportation. For those who  have cars, the topic can be mundane, Parsons said, but those without vehicles in Greenwood are “kind of stuck,” given the lack of public transportation.

Before the Big Star grocery store on Cotton Street closed in the summer of 2018, residents in the inner part of town could walk to buy groceries, Parsons explained.

It’s much harder to walk to the Big Star or Walmart, both on U.S. 82, let alone to a job, he said.

“You can’t walk to the catfish plant. It’s not a walkable city, and there’s no public transportation,” Parsons said.

Persistent joblessness is another theme Parsons discovered. The closing of manufacturing plants, such as the Baldwin Piano and Organ and National Picture & Frame facilities years ago, meant it became harder for people to find stable jobs with steady wages, Parsons said.

“A lot of people had jobs. These factories closed, and there was nothing to replace them. So, what are you expected to do in that situation?” he said.

A legacy of racism has also made it historically hard for African Americans in the community to thrive, Parsons said.

Throughout his interviews with struggling families, mental health and gun violence were two prominent topics.

Though a variety of factors can cause mental illness, numerous studies have reported that those living in poverty are likely to deal with it.

As for gun violence, Parsons said he learned from his interviews that it wasn’t established gangs such as the Gangster Disciples or Vice Lords that are responsible for violence in the community but rather young men involved in street gangs that carried out the violence.

“It’s like these street gangs and that young men just get caught up in them, and once you get sort of caught up in it, it’s hard to get yourself out. And, bigger picture, there’s nothing else really for them to aspire to. There’s no good jobs; they’re not being prepared for college, or if they are being prepared for college, they can’t afford it,” Parsons said.

Some families hoping to find a fresh start may move to a different neighborhood only to find that the area is plagued with gun violence. Parsons said that even if it’s only a few people doing the shooting, the whole street is affected.

A press release accompanying the report stated that rural disadvantaged areas, such as Leflore County, often are more likely to “lack infrastructure and investment to alleviate poverty.”

The absence of a homeless shelter, overpriced housing and the tendency for employers to move away from rural areas are all examples of that, Parsons said.

Dr. Luke Shaefer, one of the report’s lead researchers and a professor at the University of Michigan, said that he’s heard that there are communities in Leflore County that don’t have access to clean drinking water or have to boil their water before consuming it.

To add context beyond the numbers and data of the most disadvantaged communities, several essays written by researchers in the field have been published.

Shaefer said one essay to come out in the future will concern access to clean and reliable drinking water in Leflore County.

He said it was a surprise when the study showed that many of the impoverished communities were in rural areas rather than urban areas, where much of the research on poverty is usually focused.

Since its release, the report has been covered by numerous regional outlets in areas that are considered strongly disadvantaged.  “I like to think it helps people think about poverty and disadvantage in a different way than they had,” Shaefer said.

The hope now is that the report can be used to inform community stakeholders and philanthropic organizations where to invest and take action.

“We think we should be doing a lot more for folks struggling in rural parts of the country,” Shaefer said.

Contact Gerard Edic at 581-7239 or gedic@gwcommonwealth.com.

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