The Southern Regional Asset Building Coalition (SRABC) recently held its annual conference in Biloxi. The event brought together experts from around the country to share ideas, data, and insights on strengthening economic security and expanding economic opportunity in the Deep South.
Economic security means more than just having a good job: it is the knowledge that you can maintain a reasonable standard of living even in the face of an unplanned event, such as a medical emergency, a layoff, or — yes — a natural disaster.
Hosting the conference in Biloxi provided an occasion to discuss the solemn lessons about economic insecurity in the wake of devastation. This year is the tenth since Hurricane Katrina smashed homes, businesses, and lives, and the fifth since the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill crippled the environment, wildlife, and key industries.
As a Biloxi native, I do not know of any words, facts, or measures that could begin to express the scars left by the events of the last decade. They are still felt on every limb of this community, and they are especially visible in East Biloxi — the most ethnically and racially diverse area in the city.
Today, parts of East Biloxi have recovered, but they are pockets on an otherwise empty plain. Concrete slabs remind us of the physical devastation we experienced, while abandoned, half-built casinos on Highway 90 call to mind the ongoing economic devastation. We’ve seen a major drop in tourism, which leaves us with fewer total jobs than existed a decade ago, before Katrina. In 2005, the hurricane destroyed the casinos and hotels that made the Coast an attractive destination, and as they were rebounding, the oil spill destroyed the tourist demand to fill them. The oil spill also cut the legs out from under our fishermen, many of whom immigrated to East Biloxi from Vietnam in the 1970s and 1980s.
We know from experience that a full, swift recovery cannot occur without the availability of liquid assets. People need funds to rebuild businesses, to repair homes, to replace vehicles and furniture, to make ends meet until they can get back to work, to pay for the premium hikes for flood, wind, and hail insurance,… the list goes on. Many public and private entities provide emergency financial assistance in the aftermath of disaster, but they do not provide sufficient support to rebuild for the long haul.
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Empty slabs. Repressed memories. Businesses in ruin. Tar balls on the beach. We live with constant reminders that the effects of disaster are not easily remedied. Some have likely not even surfaced yet.
For many of us, living here is a choice. For others, living anywhere else is not a possibility. But all of us know that the vulnerability of our coastal home is inherent to its beauty. The tenacious resilience of East Biloxi residents has allowed us to survive through generations of devastation, both natural and manmade. But it hasn’t always been easy.
Unexpected disasters have altered the courses of many lives, and their effects can be passed down through the generations. In the late 1800s, my family were Irish immigrants who arrived in Biloxi to find work as they could in fisheries and on the railroad. Unlike other groups of laborers, my great-great-grandfather was not denied access to economic opportunity due to the color of his skin. He found prosperity by starting a successful naval storage business. At the time, his story represented the essential promise of the now-fleeting “American Dream.”
But, as it happens here, a tropical storm came through one summer and wiped away the naval storage business and, thus, my family’s wealth. They had been fortunate to acquire one generation’s worth of assets, but they didn’t have enough to form a safety net; when the assets were damaged, they lacked the means to rebuild. The following generations of the family had to seek other, increasingly limited, opportunities.
My grandfather grew up in modest circumstances in East Biloxi (on the end of Howard Avenue at the bend, for locals). As a teen, he had to work different maritime jobs to help the family get by. When he turned 18, he did what many young people did — and still do — to get out of an area with dwindling opportunity: he joined the military. The trajectory of his life would be familiar to many East Biloxi residents today.
Fixing policies that are harmful and implementing new ones that are proven successes could be the first step toward meaningful economic security, which may eventually lead to real asset building capacity. I can only imagine that my own family and others like us would have greatly benefitted from policies that would have helped us recover the wealth once created in East Biloxi.
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East Biloxi’s development was intertwined with the maritime and fisheries industries, which attracted many immigrant families — including my own — to the Coast. It has always been a polyglot area where people of diverse backgrounds sought to build a life for themselves and their families. Historically, the melding of race, ethnicity, and language has set East Biloxi apart from the rest of the bifurcated state.
Yet the area’s struggles are common to nearly every other community in Mississippi. Just a short drive from the gaming resort where the conference was held, many East Biloxi families are struggling to get by week-to-week or month-to-month. They exist in a state of persistent economic fragility — and with the knowledge that a storm could rise up and shatter their livelihoods at any point.
Educational attainment in East Biloxi is lower than citywide rates, while poverty and unemployment are significantly higher. Very few jobs in the area pay enough to provide a reasonable livelihood. Roughly 40 percent of working East Biloxi residents are employed in the low-wage service industry. More than one third of households earn less than $15,000 a year, and 26 percent of residents do not have health insurance. Seasonal fluctuations in tourism mean that earnings and work schedules are inconsistent for many. Mid- to long-term planning is nearly impossible.
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Its geography might pose unique challenges, but East Biloxi’s needs are the same as any economically distressed community in Mississippi: jobs that pay a living wage, access to stable healthcare, affordable housing and childcare, successful public schools, and viable pathways to higher education.
Unfortunately, Mississippi’s policymakers have done little to address the conditions that keep families in a persistent state of economic insecurity. If anything, they have created additional burdens.
On education, the Legislature continues to underfund our school districts even when sufficient revenue is available. The Mississippi Adequate Education Program formula will be shortchanged by $210 million this fiscal year ($1.7 billion over the past five years) despite more than $600 million placed into reserve funds this year. When they have boosted school funding, legislators have chosen to create new programs rather than put the money into MAEP, which gives additional funding to high-poverty districts that have greater needs but less local tax revenue. Within schools, not all students receive equal treatment. African American students are overrepresented among those receiving excessive discipline, keeping them from class more often while increasing the odds of grade repetition and dropout.
On healthcare, Mississippi’s leaders continue to reject federally-funded Medicaid expansion, leaving hundreds of thousands of citizens below the poverty line without an affordable health insurance option. Mississippi is electing to sacrifice new and existing healthcare jobs — not to mention the health of its workforce — over ideological objections to the expansion.
On housing, the tax credits available to build affordable residences are disproportionately steered toward high-poverty, low-opportunity neighborhoods. Plenty of research has shown that those born into poverty need access to quality schools and services in order to climb the socioeconomic ladder. However, Mississippi’s allocation of housing tax credits concentrates low-income families in areas with the least ability to provide those services.
On public assistance, Mississippi lawmakers force a single mom to be screened for drug use before she’s eligible to receive a total of $170 per month through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. For what it costs to provide 110 families with a monthly stipend, Mississippi has caught only eight users out of the thousands tested.
On consumer finance, state policymakers have left payday lenders largely unchecked. These usurious enterprises can charge interest rates of more than 500 percent for small-dollar loans, trapping working Mississippians in a unending cycle of debt. The funds that should go toward goods and services are being collected by glorified loan sharks instead.
On taxes, Mississippi is one of the few states to charge full sales tax on groceries and household essentials that comprise a large portion of working families’ budgets. The state also levies income taxes on the working poor despite routinely giving tax breaks to manufacturers, agribusiness, and shopping mall developers. Ideas such as the creation of a state-based refundable Earned Income Tax Credit to lift workers above the poverty line have gained little traction in Mississippi despite bipartisan support in other states.
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Fortunately, many individuals and organizations have stepped into the void left by state leaders. At the SRABC conference, we heard about the difference Mississippi-based Hope Credit Union is making in economically distressed communities throughout the state and region. Hope is a financial institution with a mission to increase assets for those who are otherwise without an economic ladder, or even a lifeline. The presence of a stable financial institution can transform a community: the branch in East Biloxi is helping residents build their assets so they can weather the next storm.
My organization, the Mississippi Center for Justice, opened its Biloxi office after Katrina with two attorneys and one paralegal. They responded to the needs of people being evicted from their property, defrauded by contractors, denied affordable housing options, and ignored by the state’s recovery plans. Armed with little more than legal pads and cell phones, MCJ’s staff of three traveled across the torn-up roads to meet with clients. One outcome of their efforts was the establishment of a network of community organizations in East Biloxi that continue to work to ensure fairness and equality in recovery and beyond.
Formed in 2013, the East Biloxi Community Collaborative (EBCC) seeks to address the area’s immediate on-the-ground needs as well as deep structural inequalities. The community-wide coalition is employing a range of strategies to promote health, education, neighborhood viability, civic engagement, and economic security. Member organizations have pooled their resources to maximize the collective benefit — particularly in the arena of asset building. The SRABC conference offered an opportunity to share ideas that can be put to use by the local coalition.
In a place that is accustomed to booms and busts, these institutions are preparing for the long haul. They know that storms are a matter of when, not if, so community resilience is necessary. Building economic security when the skies are clear is the only way to be equipped to respond when they turn dark.
Nevertheless, far more work is needed to solve the intertwined challenges of under-education, job scarcity, and unaffordable healthcare and housing. The longer East Biloxi residents go without the tools they need to achieve economic security, the greater the risk posed by the next storm.
We are already doing our part. The question is if our lawmakers will do theirs.