The Other America, 2012: Confronting the Poverty Epidemic

Clarksdale, Mississippi, might seem an unlikely starting point for a meditation on twenty-first-century American inequality. After all, the music the town’s fame rests on is born of the sorrow and racial exploitations of another century. Clarksdale proudly markets itself as the home of the blues: the world’s best blues musicians still come to jam in the little Delta town where W.C. Handy once lived, where Bessie Smith died and where Robert Johnson supposedly made his infamous pact with the devil at a crossroads on the edge of town.

But Clarksdale is also the site of a very different crossroads, one in many ways emblematic of what America is becoming: a place of stunning divides and dramatically disparate life expectations between rich and poor. The side streets of central Clarksdale are lined with tiny, dilapidated wooden homes. Most residents here make do without basic services and amenities, including anything beyond a bare-bones education, and many lack access to the broader cash economy. In contrast, the stately old townhouses in the historic district—places where several Mississippi governors grew up, where the young Tennessee Williams ran around while staying with his grandparents—look like the scenic backdrop to a romantic film set in the antebellum South. And the newer, more palatial mansions in the suburbs ringing the town could serve as staging grounds for a reality TV show on the nouveau riche.
 
In the poorer section of Clarksdale, in a subsidized housing unit about the size of a small boat’s cabin, lives 88-year-old Amos Harper, a jack-of-all-trades who grew up in a sharecropping family. Harper spent decades doing everything from farmwork to interstate tractor-trailer transport. These days, he gets up early to supplement his $765 monthly Social Security check, collecting cans from the gutters and trading them in for 49 cents per pound. When he isn’t doing that, he’s mowing lawns and running errands for several of the town’s richer residents, including Bill Luckett. 
 
Luckett and his wife live in a huge house designed by architect E. Fay Jones, a Frank Lloyd Wright mentee. Every detail, from the high ceilings to the sunken rooms, has been carefully planned. The larger-than-life home complements the larger-than-life persona of Luckett, a burly 64-year-old attorney and real estate developer with a shock of gray hair who is “president of everything from a country club to a hunting club,” as he puts it. Luckett serves on a state legal aid board and various educational advisory boards, and he counts among his acquaintances some of the country’s top politicians and entertainers.
 
He also considers Harper a friend, although, as Luckett would be the first to acknowledge, the friendship is deeply unequal. Until age slowed him down, Harper would routinely show up at the Ground Zero blues club, a raucous place Luckett owns with actor Morgan Freeman, showing off dance moves that Luckett says are some of the best in town.
 
For Luckett, Clarksdale’s imbalances are indicative of broader fissures and inequities in Mississippi—and, he believes, across America. Angry at the way the political system is ignoring poverty, Luckett ran for governor last year on an anti-poverty and invest-in-education platform. He came in a strong second in the Democratic primary, though in a state as heavily Republican as Mississippi, that didn’t necessarily count for much. “I’d never intended to get into politics,” he explains over a glass of red wine in one of his living rooms. But, he says, lack of investment in public education, an increasingly regressive tax system and other challenges pushed him into the fray. “America has never had as greedy a top 1 percent as we have now. The inequality has reached dangerous proportions.”
 
Unfortunately, Luckett is a rare exception in Mississippi politics. The state’s leadership is exemplified by ex-governor Haley Barbour and current governor Phil Bryant, who both won election by forging alliances between country club denizens and the culturally conservative white working class, which both preach the virtues of shrinking government, rolling back regulations and cutting social services. “When you get a white guy walking out of his rusty trailer into his pickup truck and he’s got a Vote Republican placard in his yard, then you’ve reached the height of stupidity,” Luckett says.