HELENA, ARK. — THE lower Mississippi River region is so poor that one section is called ``America's Ethiopia,'' and a federal commission is seeking new ways to help the area's dying towns and end generations of dependence on welfare. There are counties with more than a quarter of the work force idled, a lack of capital to attract new jobs, and waste of human resources, like teen-age mothers with sickly babies and adults who cannot read or write.
Unlike a foreign country in need, the region of 214 counties in seven states covered by the study gets neither enough sympathy from Washington nor bailouts from international financiers, says Wilbur Hawkins Jr., executive director of the Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission.
``It's nice, well, and dandy to take care of foreign nations,'' Mr. Hawkins says. ``But here we are in America - we can afford to send money to Poland, to the Caribbean nations, but not to the delta.''
``There is a lack of care about the delta's problems,'' said one commission member, Ed Jones of Tennessee. ``I think the Southern people are concerned, and now it's time for the nation to be concerned.''
The commission members represent Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee and are appointed by the states' governors. Congress assigned the commission to come up with a 10-year plan for government and private action to lift the region out of poverty. The Mississippi River delta is the area below New Orleans where it spills into the Gulf of Mexico. But Congress, noting common problems of the mostly agrarian poor counties stretching from southern Illinois to the tip of Louisiana, grouped the seven states under the common heading of ``delta'' in creating the commission.
The region has long relied on agriculture, river commerce, and industries that have suffered because of overseas competition. The river is lined by rich farmland and dotted by small waterfront towns, like Helena, and a few population centers, like Memphis, Tenn., which have some prosperity.
Of the 11 million people in the region, 40 percent fall below federal poverty guidelines, according to Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) of Arkansas.
The commission's preliminary proposal for a 10-year improvement plan is to be presented to Congress in October; a final report is due in May 1990.