In the Mississippi Delta, the unemployment rate is 6.5 percent, compared to 4.9 percent statewide. Transportation makes it harder for Delta residents to find work, and MPB’s Alexandra Watts reports on how some are finding ways to get to work.
It’s a little after noon and a small white bus idles in a hospital parking lot in Cleveland. It’s there to pick up Delta residents who work at the casinos two hours north in Tunica.
Nelson Brown is dressed in black and ready to get to work.
“I got about three more stops,” Brown said before boarding. “We have to be there before 3, so the buses will get us there about 2 or 2:15.”
The drive to Tunica takes about two hours. That is five times longer than the average commute in Mississippi. For Brown, that’s two hours up, an eight-hour shift and two hours back. A 12 hour day, five days a week.
“I’m leaving my family now. I don’t see them until 2 o’clock… at night…like my son’s stepson birthday is tomorrow. They finna have something for him, but around this time, I’ll be heading to work.”
Brown is not the only person who has to leave his family. Mariah Reddice has a 2-year-old and an 8-month-old. She wanted to find a local job, but couldn’t.
“I did a lot of applications, but they never called,” Reddice said. “Every time you call, they say they’re not hiring. So I just went up there.”
Even though it’s a long drive, there have benefits for Reddice.
“It’s been good because I got a promotion at work. 12 dollars an hour. That was good —especially with two kids.”
The buses are part of the Bolivar County Council on Aging’s transportation services across the Delta.
Reddice pays about $100 for a two-week bus pass. She has a car, but the gas would run about $170 every two weeks, plus there’s the wear and tear.
When you start paying folks to get you to work…especially when you have a family, it’s very costly. And sometimes, people make unfortunate decision not to work,” said Henry Phillips Jr. with the non-profit Families First for Mississippi. He said having a way to get to work makes all the difference for those looking for work.
“In 2019, transportation is still an issue in the Mississippi Delta. So, if you can get a job, you must have a way to getting to that job…because we have great workers. We don’t have all of the other things that go along with being a successful employee.”
Phillips says services like these provide not only a way to work, but a way to better opportunities.
Separate from the Bolivar County Council on Aging, FedEx is now providing transportation from Cleveland all the way to Memphis, Tennessee.
Baylor University sociologist Carson Mencken used to work in Mississippi and says transportation is a big economic issue in rural areas across the U.S., but it’s not the only problem.
The problem is lack of economic development and the transportation used and challenges are just another symptom of long term structural problems in a number of rural economies.”
According to U.S. World and News Report, Mississippi has seen the slowest growth in a younger population. In the Delta, younger people continue to leave in record numbers due to the lack of opportunities available.
“We call it the brain drain. When you look at rural economies, what you’re finding in those rural counties and economies, is that the average age of person is rising rapidly. And it’s not because there are lots of older people are moving in, it’s usually because there are lots of younger people moving out.”
But in the Delta, people of all ages have trouble finding work.
Back in the hospital parking lot, Brown is about to take off for his long workday. By the time he comes back, the parking lot will be dark. But he doesn’t have complaints about the work itself.
“I like where I work. I go every day. I don’t miss no day,” he said. “But like I said, I’d like to do something here so I can do the same thing closer to home.”
But until then, more than half of every day will be dedicated to working and commuting.