What can be done to turn around the deep health problems in Arkansas’ Delta region?

Published on
July 23, 2021

Pine Bluff and Blytheville were once considered the premier cities of the Delta region in Arkansas, but once business and jobs left, these thriving meccas for local farmers and residents rapidly declined along with the region’s health outcomes. 

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in Arkansas has shed light on the health disparities within the state, specifically in the Delta areas where once-thriving cities have become zones in need of health assistance. 

Our project, “The Forgotten Jewels,” will explore the harmful effect that poverty, lack of medical access and lack of educational opportunities has had on generations of children in the Delta region. 

The reporting for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette will tell the story through the families and Delta health officials who are living in areas known as health deserts. We’ll examine the root causes, using Pine Bluff and Blytheville as the figureheads of the Delta, and discuss the government response to the recent health crisis in the region.

Geographic health disparities continue in Arkansas, with the lowest-ranked counties mostly being Black counties in the Delta region, according to the 2021 County Health Rankings report issued by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. 

The report provides overall health outcome scores for counties and estimates of the measures used to calculate the health outcome scores. These measures cover length of life or quality of life, the percentage of adults reporting fair or poor health, and the percentage of live births with low birthweight. 

The lowest ranked counties include Desha, Monroe and Phillips. Other Delta counties tend to rank below counties in other parts of Arkansas.

Pine Bluff in Jefferson County and Blytheville in Mississippi County were both known as the “crown jewels” of the Delta region in the 1900s, but both of these majority-Black cities received devastating blows when major sources of population growth and income left the area. 

The U.S. military first opened an Army airfield in Blytheville in 1942, and it served as the home of the 97th Bombardment Wing of the Strategic Air Command. The federal government closed the base in 1992, and the Blytheville area lost about 6,500 people, including the families of service members transferred elsewhere. Since then, the area has continued to decline in population and economic opportunity. Health care has become harder to access for residents, and the county was hard-hit by COVID-19.

During the pandemic, Mississippi County had over 13,000 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents and more than 100 total deaths.

Pine Bluff was the home of world-class education and industry for most of the 1900s, but the city began to decline when factories that had employed the majority of the population began to move away. The city's decline became more obvious in the later part of the 20th century as crime skyrocketed and the once vibrant downtown area literally began to crumble as several buildings collapsed on Main Street in 2014. In 2019, 24/7 Wall St. ranked Pine Bluff as the top metropolitan area in the nation to experience population loss. The local school district has been under state control for several years. As in Blytheville, as the city has crumbled access to health care has become more challenging for residents. During the pandemic, Jefferson County had more than 12,000 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people, and more than 160 deaths.

Data from the Poverty Solution Project from the University of Michigan show that Jefferson County, where Pine Bluff is located, ranks as one of the most disadvantaged communities in the country, with 24.7% of the 71,373 residents living in poverty, and 9.9% of the population living in deep poverty. The national average poverty rate is 14.7% and the deep poverty rate is at 6.5%.

The data also showed 12.7% of infants were born with low birth weights compared to the national average of 8%, and 14.7% of the population had less than a high school degree. 

Data from the project also showed that Mississippi County is considered a disadvantaged community, with 25.6% of the population living in poverty and 10.5% of the population living in deep poverty. 

The data showed that 11.4% of infants were born with low birth weights, and life expectancy was at 71.5 years. Less than 18% of the population has a high school degree and the county has a 58.3% labor force participation rate.

Desha, Phillips, Monroe, Chicot, Crittenden, St. Francis, and Columbia were also listed as among the most disadvantaged communities in the report. The majority of these counties are considered rural except for Crittenden and Jefferson counties. 

Pine Bluff and Blytheville have both become homes to new sources of potential income over the past few years. Big River Steel built a $1.2 billion facility in Mississippi County, and Saracen Casino Resort built a $350 million facility in Pine Bluff. The long-term effects of these new ventures for area residents remains to be seen.

My project for the 2021 National Fellowship will analyze the health disparities within the state, specifically in these Delta areas. I will also examine health care deserts and what might be done to remedy the issue.