The southern state of Mississippi is named for the great river that splits America in two; it's the birthplace of Blues music; and home to legendary writers such as William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and John Grisham. Yet, according to a survey released last month by the U.S. Census Bureau, it also continues to be the most poverty-stricken state in the nation. So what is life like for the people of Mississippi?
"Pretty much low budgeting all your life, just trying to make it." That's how Bobby Joe, a tall young father of three characterizes life in the small town of West Point, Mississippi.
On this hot, overcast day, the temperature is soaring past 38 degrees centigrade. Bobby Joe and his three small boys are among several families doing laundry at the local coin-o-matic.
He moved to the community about three years ago and drives a forklift for a local company. His wife is a stay-at-home mom. He considered becoming a truck driver, which would pay better, but would take him away from home too often. Besides, he says, he has bigger dreams for his family. "I want to become a coach. I was thinking about going to school to become a coach. Right now I'm trying to send my wife back to school to become a teacher. I want the best for my kids, that's all."
Bobby Joe's children watch with delight as another man with short blond hair puts some bills in the change-maker and coins drop out. Allan Wilson is a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 30-something single father of two works as a welder. He also hopes to someday go back to school and study electronics.
He grew up in West Point and returned because his family lives here, but says things have changed a lot since the largest employer in the area, the Bryan food processing plant, closed last year.
"It's a whole different town from when I was a kid with lay-offs and what not," he observes. "It's completely changed." In fact, today, more than a quarter of the town's 13,500 residents are unemployed, more than five times the national average.
But Pam, a pretty, petite woman at the video store down the street sees better days ahead. "The economy in West Point has changed just in the last year," she concedes, "with the Bryan plant closing and several other plants closing, but there's also been industry coming in, like Wal-mart, the new pharmacy, (and) Griffin Armor, so it has its good and it has its bad."
Pam and her family moved to Mississippi nine years ago from Texas. Her husband's job as supervisor of a boiler company brought them here. For her, life is pretty good. She works as a caregiver for an elderly woman during the day, her eldest son is planning to attend college, and they just bought her dream home. "It's a two-story house, looks like an antebellum house with a big balcony on the front. We've got to put a picket fence around it. It's all I've ever wanted. I'd just like to kick back one day and take it easy."
Jeannetta Edwards is also living her dream. A transplant from the Midwestern state of Kansas via California, she is the first African-American editor of the town's paper. A twist of fate — winning big at a casino — gave her the opportunity to go back to school and get her journalism degree. She moved here because her parents were originally from West Point.
Edwards says her favorite part of the job is telling the stories of the community. "They're very warm open people. West Point is very rich in cultural heritage, you'll find a lot of families have been here for generations and generations and generations. Clay County, right after the Civil War, had the highest number in the state in terms of blacks who owned land, rather than sharecroppers."
Edwards takes the optimistic view that last year's plant closing has presented West Point's residents with some new opportunities. She says there have already been several new people stepping forward to take roles in government. And she points to the Howlin' Wolf Festival, in honor of the town's famous blues singer, as another chance to showcase the accomplishments of the community. "We have tons of artists; we have basket weavers and painters, people that make arrowheads, just all kinds of wonderful people that stay in West Point because they want to."
In short, West Point may be at the bottom of the list when it comes to income, but it's a place where everyone knows everyone else, family values and education are strong, and people still use the courtesies "sir" and "ma'am" in conversation. Not to mention it made another list, as one of the Top 100 Small Towns in America.