“Poverty is not a problem “as well.” Poverty is the problem to be prioritized.”
I turned right onto an unkempt brick road, swerving around potholes, head whirling towards the burnt, uninhabitable apartment building on the left and neglected landscaping on the right, finally settling on a white house with four white columns and a porch swing protecting the front door. Welcome home.
This summer, I worked and lived in downtown Helena-West Helena, Arkansas at Thrive: a mission-driven graphic design firm aiming to increase economic mobility and decrease rural brain drain in the Mississippi Delta. In addition to its extremely affordable design services, Thrive offers free business development workshops, business planning and strategy services, and start-up office space. To help Thrive with this mission of small business creation, my job as an intern involved researching economic leakage in the area by interviewing local business owners and community leaders and analyzing various industry reports and profiles. Economic leakage refers to the gap between an area’s aggregate demand for a product and the aggregate supply—in other words, the dollar difference between how much of something Helena’s population wants and how much Helena’s businesses offer. The goal of said research was to identify what types of businesses could be successful in Helena, and I completed a 22-page report delineating my findings concerning the massive retail gaps in various industries. For example, there is currently over $4 million of unmet demand for full-service restaurants in Helena and over $10 million for health and personal care stores—all of which could be retained and funneled back into the local economy. Identifying these gaps is especially important in a place like Helena because plugging economic leakage is one of scholars’ key recommendations for boosting rural economies. Analyzing such important data and assembling my report was a rewarding experience as an economics major; the process of doing so required community immersion that yielded larger insight about my temporary home and impoverished areas in general.
In a rural town where 42% of residents live in poverty (almost three times the national poverty rate), where black poverty is preponderant and white poverty is nearly nonexistent, and where choosing whether to live in ‘Helena’ or ‘West Helena’ is not a choice, but predetermined by one’s race and income level, agencies and individuals committed to community development are crucial to reaching the brighter future its population envisions. The road to this future, however, is divergent. It’s split in half with race and class at its center, segregating white from black and rich from poor, rendering collaboration and inclusion impossible. Though these roads seem to lead to the same place—a more vibrant, bustling Helena—the paths wind and weave in different directions, getting guidance from different sources, finding hope in different solutions. This broken road is the image that whizzed through my mind on multiple occasions as I tried to traverse the very distinctive, very isolated planes of the community.
Sitting in a boardroom with the mayor across from me and commissioners and entrepreneurs on either side, I listened to ideas and opinions about how to make Helena more attractive to the American Queen steamboat passengers who visited a couple of Sundays out of the year. They droned on about the aesthetically displeasing areas to be avoided, the complex science of the bus route, and promising locations for installing blues-blaring speakers. Bearing the hot summer heat on Cherry Street, I walked from store to store talking to business owners about building dilapidation and advertising strategies and population decline and crime and, as I heard this summer, “poverty, is a problem, too.”
Leaping over to the other side of the road, I served as a group leader for six to nine-year-olds, all African American, most dropping daily hints and innuendos about familial disruption, food insecurity, and other poverty-related concerns: “I can get another lunch to take home for dinner? I can get another granola bar?” … “Why don’t y’all have breakfast, too? I don’t eat before coming here, I’m starved!” … “How come you don’t have kids yet? You’re old, you’re 21!” … “I have four siblings on my momma’s side, and I don’t even know how many on my dad’s.” … “Can you take me home? I don’t have a ride, and I live far.”
The literacy camp at which I volunteered followed this pattern almost exactly, but with one horrifying twist— “My parents got in a fight last night, and, man, she got some bruises this mornin’.”
These kids never mentioned run-down buildings or the art of Facebook promotion or the troublesome task of luring people downtown to shop with free mimosas and tapas. DeShawn talked about being hungry as if hunger is normal. Jalen skipped out of what appeared to be condemned apartments as if inadequate housing conditions are commonplace. Imani described her mom’s bruises as if domestic abuse is routine. Of course, every family is prone to some issues; familial instability can occur in any type of household, regardless of race or class. But higher economic functioning often masks those issues or even curtails them, while the problems low-income families face tend to be more visible.
The mentioned primarily white, primarily upper class group of people—the ‘boardroomers’—is focused solely on economic development in their mission to increase aggregate prosperity by ushering in outside industry. The mostly African American, mostly lower class group, by contrast, is in need of human development. Human capabilities are the activities performed by human beings that are considered central to and definitive of an adequate human life experience. For example, bodily health and integrity, emotions, play, and control over one’s environment are all considered basic capabilities to living a full, human life that are often limited or unavailable to people experiencing poverty. In Helena, human capability is in a bloody, ruthless war against poverty, and the carnage is visible on every street corner. This severe capability deprivation limits the potential of economic development initiatives, leaving the boardroom group bewildered by the conspicuous lack of progress. Of course, undertakings like economic leakage identification are important for economic growth, but these initiatives are insufficient in a town crippled by material poverty coupled with neglected capabilities. Developing human capability in Helena cannot be an afterthought or a supplement to economic prosperity—it must be a prerequisite. In a town where the capabilities essential to thriving beyond mere survival are not guaranteed but only hoped for, the shortfalls of any major economic development agenda are unsurprising. But, unfortunately, these shortfalls do come as a surprise to the mayor and the commissioners and the entrepreneurs and the developers, and it is a result of the blinders we call racism and inequality. A result of the notion that human value is associated with skin color or income level. That we as a human race are more different than we are similar.
All sides of the road to the future share a vision for Helena—the people who call this place home all yearn for revitalization and renewal; but until the blinders are removed and the fissure is closed, the destination cannot be reached. Until all sides listen to each other and unify as a singular driving force, the vision for a brighter Helena is just that—a vision, incapable of taking concrete form.
Poverty is not a problem “as well.” Poverty is the problem to be prioritized. The other issues—population decline, building dereliction, academically distressed schools, crime—bud from and are fueled by cyclical generational persistent poverty. Fracturing that cycle is the key, and fracturing racial barriers is how to access it. Acknowledging the racial rift and bridging that gap is the first step towards informing the people in power why their development agendas have not been successful and their efforts to revitalize the town yield little to no change.
Until the socioeconomically stratified community action agencies collaborate; until the racially divided faith communities unite; until the hyphen in Helena-West Helena disappears; and until the two roads become one—real, vast, sustainable change is impossible.