Tupelo Story

Why start with your low-income families?

Families First: The Tupelo Story

In the 1950’s, northeast Mississippi – including Tupelo, the hometown of Elvis – was just about the poorest part of the poorest state in the nation. Families struggled. Businesses had a lackluster attitude. The region had neither striking natural beauty nor desirable natural resources upon which to build its future. Hope did not abound.

Enter George McLean, who came to town to run the newspaper. McLean envisioned a better future for Tupelo and surrounding Lee County — a future based on using the creativity and collaboration of the region’s people. After several years of failing to convince anyone that this was possible,

McLean launched a campaign to win over Main Street business owners.

“Would you like to make a lot more money next year?” he asked them.

“Sure thing we would!” they answered.

“Well then,” McLean said, “We have to find a way to get more income to the people who have the least to spend in your stores.”

In Lee County, these people were hardworking but low-income rural farm families.

Tupelo leaders and business owners joined forces with these farm families to try to figure out why the families remained poor despite their hard work. They discovered that most local farmers were growing seasonal crops – cotton, for example. Because crop farming has a long production cycle, the family farmers had to take out large loans at planting time and live very frugally until their crops came in. They learned to be risk averse. They spent little, never knowing when bad weather, low crop prices or high interest rates would ruin their year, and possibly plunge them into debt.

How could these farmers ever manage to earn more to spend more on Main Street? After doing some research, the Tupelo group discovered that dairy and poultry farmers had it much better, thanks to a different production cycle. They produced milk and eggs daily, made money selling them every week, and had income year-round. So the Tupelo group launched an effort to help convert struggling crop farmers into prospering dairy and poultry farmers. Community resources were pooled to help modernize business throughout the county, bringing artificial insemination technology (and a prize bull from Europe) to the region long before such innovation was common in this country.

In just a few years, this effort produced $2 million in new income for the region. Farm families did better, and so did everyone else in town.
This success was the product of a community partnership that brought people together to rebuild their community in a way that benefited everyone. And it was just the beginning. Working together, these partners continued to look for other barriers blocking struggling families’ progress and find ways to lower those barriers and increase opportunity.

They created one of Mississippi’s first racially-desegregated school systems. They set up a region-wide independent grievance system to guarantee workers’ rights, that worked effectively even in a very non-union environment. Over time, as businesses and industries grew, people obtained better educations and better jobs.

Today, this region is among the most prosperous in the southeastern United States. Tupelo’s Lee County, with a population of 72,000, boasts 52,000 jobs and over $1 billion per year in retail sales. By 1999, the poverty rate was just 7%, compared to 16% for the U.S. and 22% in Mississippi!
The Tupelo story has a moral: If you want your community to do better, whether it’s a neighborhood, town or region, start by figuring out what keeps your struggling families struggling — what keeps them from achieving economic success. Then bring together the resources, people and ideas to help them do better. If they do better, everyone will.

 

For more about the Tupelo story, see Vaughn Grisham and Rob Gurwitt. Hand in Hand: Community and Economic Development in Tupelo. Washington, D.C.: Aspen Institute, 1999.  Currently available on CSG’s website as a PDF for download. You can also purchase hard copies of the book HERE.

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