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The Other Tallulah

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Madison Parish is one of the poorest places in the nation. In 2001, more than eight out of 10 parish schoolchildren were eligible for free or reduced lunches. In Madison's parish seat, Tallulah, the annual per capita income is a mere $8,324; almost half of the townspeople live below the poverty level. The only parishes worse off in this state are Tensas, which is just below Madison on the map, and East Carroll, which is just above.

Louisiana State University sociologist Joachim Singelmann has conducted years of research in this area. He cites examples of how public officials in the region turned down federal development money because they feared that competition would raise agricultural wages. Today, with agriculture dwindling all across the United States, northeast Louisiana is left with very little else.

Except prisons, which Sen. Don Cravins, D-Arnaudville, says have "sprung up like mushrooms all over the delta" ("The Other Tallulah," June 17). Cravins has been the most outspoken opponent of the Tallulah juvenile facility, which has come under extensive criticism for alleged abuse of its young inmates. In Tallulah itself, townspeople we spoke to are not altogether thrilled about their local prison, the Swanson Correctional Center for Youth -- Madison Parish Unit, better known throughout the state as "Tallulah." Yet they are understandably concerned about the loss of 300 jobs in their region's fragile economy.

Nationally, some researchers are questioning whether prisons help local economies at all. Since 1980, prisons have been built in more than 350 rural areas nationwide. In February, the Sentencing Project released the report Big Prisons, Small Towns: Prison Economies in Rural America, which analyzed 25 years of economic data for rural counties in New York, a leader in prison construction. The findings indicated that many regular prison jobs go to people from other counties; the top jobs go to people transferred in from other places. The Sentencing Project could find no measurable impact on per capita income, unemployment or poverty rates.

What other development will be successful in these areas? It's an important question all across rural America, especially in the "Black Belt," a crescent-shaped region that stretches from east Texas to south Virginia and contains one in four of the nation's poor.

Economic development works best when it matches industrial needs with local skills. Singelmann's research shows that many men from this area are skilled at welding, a talent that local kids seem to learn growing up, he says. This natural supply of welders proved to be a good match for the Avondale shipyard, which opened a satellite location in Madison Parish a few years ago and, in spite of its questionable reputation among New Orleans labor organizers, is seen as a success story in northeast Louisiana.

But more is needed. Traditionally, regional development efforts have focused on traditional infrastructure -- bridges, highways, electrification, and water and sewer systems. North Carolina State University professor Ron Wimberley, a native of northeast Louisiana and an expert in the rural South and the Black Belt, believes that this region's social infrastructure also requires help. Like most rural areas, Madison Parish and the town of Tallulah lack adequate health care, housing, day care, education and transportation. Without those social services, Wimberley says, the poorest people will not be able to obtain and keep jobs.

Money for programs like these is not likely to come solely from local sources. Federal assistance in this region began largely during the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who, it's said, first became concerned about the South during his vacations in Georgia, when he saw little specks of light traveling across the hillside and realized that people there were still using kerosene lanterns. His New Deal is credited with bringing new infrastructure that helped move the South forward.

The Appalachian Regional Commission, created during the Kennedy-Johnson era, reduced poverty in that region. (Currently, one in 10 of the nation's poor lives in the Appalachians.) The Delta Regional Authority used that model when it formed a few years ago. Wimberley believes it's time for a commission that could address the type of problems now seen in Madison Parish.

Currently, on Capitol Hill, three bills are trying to establish this commission. Two of them ask for a separate body covering the southeast states; the third, by Alabama Rep. Arthur Davis, proposes to fold the Delta Regional Authority into a larger commission covering all of the Black Belt. It's premature to rate these plans, but we welcome the newfound attention to this long-overlooked region.

In Tallulah and Madison Parish, hasty economic planning and former Gov. Edwin Edwards' political deals helped birth a troubled prison. As lawmakers now ponder the best way to close or drastically alter the facility, they must also consider how to rebuild -- economically as well as socially -- the town of Tallulah. The fate of the town now depends on how we address the closing of the prison.

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