Tunica's Gamble For Prosperity Was a Bust

The town of Tunica still faces devastating poverty and unemployment levels.

Tunica, Mississippi has been described as "America's Ethiopia," criticized on national news for its seeming "apartheid" school system and ranked as one of the nation's poorest counties. Despite managing to strike deals with big-name casinos and all of the upscale businesses that come in alongside them, Tunica is still struggling with horrific levels of poverty and a lack of opportunity for a majority of its residents. In fact, a recent study on upward mobility found that a poor child in Tunica's chances of moving up the socioeconomic ladder were lower than all but six other counties across the entire United States.

In the early 1990s, Tunica received the golden ticket out of the endless cycle of poverty and unemployment: an opportunity to become a shining, neon-lit casino destination. Since the advent of riverfront casino properties, upscale golf courses and posh restaurants, the county of Tunica has made over $760 million, which is absolutely unheard of for a place with only 10,000 people.

While this might seem like an uplifting, underdog story about a small town striking it rich, there is a dark and depressing side to this story.

From Boom to Bust

Despite the rare opportunity afforded to the town, very few of its residents received any benefits from Tunica's sudden prosperity. Though there is disagreement as far as where Tunica failed its general population, the biggest issue seems to be what is considered a gross mismanagement of funds.

Rather than investing in the long-term security of the entire town, the county's officials chose to take the majority of casino revenues and pour them into lavish wedding halls, a golf course designed by a PGA Tour pro, an Olympic-sized indoor swimming pool and luxury tourist accommodations. Many believe that the casino revenues should have been equitably divided between promoting tourism and investing in funding for skills training, proper education and basic welfare programs to help pull the county out of the entrenched poverty it has been a victim of for so many decades.

A Success Story for Certain Social Circles

Linda Fay Engle-Harris, an elderly former teacher, has been very vocal about the issues in her hometown. She is just one of the many struggling residents and has always tried to manage her dire situation on her own. She was thrilled at the prospect of the county prospering because she thought it would mean better jobs, improved standards of living and a general uplifting of the area. However, after nearly three decades, the majority of Tunica has been left in a precarious economic situation.

Only 2.5 percent of the hundreds of millions in gambling profits was actually used for things like home renovations and other social programs to help the poor. The remainder was squandered on trying to boost the tourism for the area. Unfortunately, Tunica officials did not count on their era of prosperity being so short-lived. Once competing casino moved in and the economy took a downward turn, Tunica's carefully crafted casino scene began to crumble.

"We Tend to Forget How Far We've Come"

Webster Franklin, who is the president and CEO of the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that when asked about Tunica's current situation. "In 1990, you couldn't buy shoes in Tunica. There weren't safe roads to travel on," he says. While this may be true, and while the 30 percent poverty rate may look great compared to the pre-casino days of 56 percent, Tunica is still on par with the poorest, most troubled places in the nation.

The officials and residents who benefitted from Tunica's brief stint of gambling prosperity may be able to say that the money was used with "good intentions," but that doesn't help the people in Tunica whose homes are still crumbling around them. One has to think that if online gambling were legalized in Mississippi, Tunica online casinos would help the city to prosper.