In October 1988 the US Congress established the Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission (commonly known as the Delta Regional Commission) to study methods of alleviating poverty in the portions of Mississippi and six other states that comprise the Mississippi Delta, an area where the alluvial soil is rich but most inhabitants are poor. In its two years of work, the commission alerted Congress and the nation to the needs of the region and presented a plan for later aid efforts.
The creation of the Delta Regional Commission represented the culmination of years of work by the congressional delegations from Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Members included the governors of these seven states (or their representatives) plus two presidential appointees. Arkansas governor and future US president Bill Clinton chaired the commission, with Mississippi governor Ray Mabus as vice chair.
With a mandate to evaluate the region’s needs and recommend actions to improve the quality of life there, the commission spent more than a year meeting with residents and compiling data. In May 1990 it published The Delta Initiatives: Realizing the Dream . . . Fulfilling the Potential, a comprehensive report that designated 219 counties (45 in Mississippi) as either in the Delta or contiguous to it. The document listed specific steps that local, state, and federal governments could take to address endemic economic and social problems. It also detailed the support needed from private businesses and nonprofit organizations. Having completed its mission, the commission ceased its duties on 30 September 1990.
Aid for the Delta was a high priority after Clinton became president in 1993. Budget restrictions prevented large investments early in his presidency, but by the late 1990s dozens of government agencies and private philanthropies were funding programs totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.
One example is the Rural Empowerment Zones–Enterprise Communities Initiative (EZ-EC) operated by the US Department of Agriculture. Under this program, cities and counties use block grants to pay for social services or economic development. Frequently, these grants are used to match a required percentage of larger grants. Delta counties in Mississippi are home to two of the thirty-three original EZ-EC communities nationwide, and by 2006 those two had received more than $257 million in funds from public and private sources. The US Department of Health and Human Services and the Kellogg Foundation have also collaborated on Humphreys County’s Delta Rural Health Network, which works to improve residents’ access to doctors and other services and to encourage students to choose medical careers.
Acting on Clinton administration requests in 2000, Congress established a new entity, the Delta Regional Authority (DRA), to monitor and coordinate the various aid efforts through state and local alliances. The DRA legislation added 21 counties in Alabama, bringing the total number of districts served to 240. In its first five years, the DRA approved $48.5 million of its own grants, which have brought almost $1 billion in matching money. One notable endeavor is a visa waiver system that has allowed fifty-nine physicians from other nations to practice in Mississippi’s Delta towns.
The DRA has drawn criticism for lacking an overall strategy and duplicating the work of other federal agencies. Whether these allegations are true or false, the Mississippi River Delta remains the poorest major region in the country, the same position it occupied in 1930. Of the 240 DRA counties, 227 are labeled economically distressed, including 41 in Mississippi. In addition, poverty rates are 55 percent above the national average, and deaths from circulatory diseases and cancer are far more common than in most of the United States.
The Delta Regional Commission brought attention and financial aid to a neglected backwater, and thousands of families have benefited from the many economic development efforts or the social services implemented by government and private organizations since publication of The Delta Initiatives. More than twenty years after the DRC closed its books, however, measurements of the health, education, and economic well-being of the Delta’s citizens indicate that many tasks remain undone.
- Delta Regional Authority website, www.dra.gov
- Paul Fronstein, Issue Brief 276, Employee Benefit Research Institute (December 2004)
- Health Resources and Services Administration, Rural Assistance Center Network Sourcebook
- US Department of Health and Human Services, Agency for Toxic Substances and Diseases Registry, Mississippi Delta Project (May 1995)
- US Department of Health and Human Services, Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission, Final Report: The Delta Initiatives (14 May 1990)