Sunbelt economy doesn't shine on the Delta

The Delta is ''the shady spot in the Sunbelt,'' according to Larry Farmer of Mississippi Action for Community Education, which promotes minority interests. White catfish farmers, processors, and feed salesmen are seeing business pick up. But Mississippi has no state income tax, so their profits do not turn into tax money to improve underdeveloped communities, which are lacking in paved streets and sewers.

The coming of the catfish means something different to whites and blacks. Prosperous white farmers who can afford to go into this high-risk business could make their fortune. But for poor blacks (two-thirds of the Delta's population is black), it means a chance at a regular wage cleaning fish in a processing plant.

Tom Wellborn, leader of the Extension Wildlife and Fisheries Department at Mississippi State University, says that here there are large farms, and poor farm workers. The farmers make money. They hire agricultural workers. Ag workers don't make money,'' so blacks won't benefit directly. But there is more agricultural work to do. Farmers who have changed from the more mechanized cotton, soy, and rice ''are hiring a lot of people they didn't hire five years ago.''

Unemployment among Delta blacks is ''devastating,'' says Charles Bannerman, director of Delta Enterprise, a black economic development organization here. His estimate of 25 percent unemployment includes those not usually counted in official unemployment figures: seasonal farm workers, welfare recipients, and those whose jobless benefits have run out.

Though there is more work for agricultural workers on catfish farms, Bannerman says blacks will benefit most from jobs in processing plants because there they are covered by Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, and they can be organized. He says working for the processors is much better than ''plantation work,'' working for farmers. Plantation work is seasonal, while processing is constant. And the minimum wage is 30 cents per hour higher in a processing plant.

The food processing business is creating jobs. ''It may not be what you want. . . . It is another phase in the demise of black farmers,'' Bannerman says. Catfish farming is, in effect, closed to black farmers, and small farmers in general, says Joe Adams. Mr. Adams directs the Emergency Land Fund, an organization that gives legal and educational aid and lends money to black farmers. Catfish has helped out quite a few farmers. But he says blacks and smaller farmers can't get the loans needed to start because of lack of collateral and, in the case of blacks, because of prejudice.

But Bannerman points out that two rice-processing plants in the Delta offer some of the highest-paying jobs in the area. He sees food processing as a growing opportunity. ''I'll take a job any day over no job,'' he says. ''People are saying 'we ought to own the farms' and I agree, we ought to.'' But a job in a catfish processing plant is important, ''particularly in Mississippi, where welfare pays a family of ten $125 a week. If you add health insurance, it's very meaningful.''

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