Louisiana parish provides extreme example of inequality

Dylan Stableford
Yahoo News
Lake Providence,
Gazebo in front of City Hall in Lake Providence, Louisiana (Photo by Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images)

In a speech marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, President Barack Obama called economic inequality "the great unfinished business" of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy. And Louisiana's East Carroll Parish provides an extreme example of the inequality found in much of the country.

The richest 5 percent in the parish earn $611,000 per year on average, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, while the poorest 20 percent make $6,800. According to the Tax Policy Center, those earning $611,000 are among the top 1 percent in the United States. Those with income of $6,800, meanwhile, are among the bottom 5 percent.

The unemployment rate is 16 percent, or more than double the national average.

But according to John Sutter, who recently traveled to the town of Lake Providence in the parish for CNN's Change the List project, few of its 7,500 residents are complaining.

"I was hard pressed to find people in Lake Providence who think income inequality, specifically, is a problem," Sutter wrote on CNN.com. "This is the way things are, they say."

Delores Gilmore, a 44-year-old overnight prison guard who lives on the south side of the lake, earns $8.50 per hour working 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. to make ends meet.

"The first of the month, I pay the rent," she said. "The next check, I pay my light bills. Sometimes I won't pay my rent and I pay the light bill from last month — if they cut if it off. Then I pay the rent the end of the month. ... I get it done. By the grace of God, I get it done."

Gilmore may not complain about the income division, but she does dream about being on the other side, Sutter writes:

Gilmore, a stern but funny lady who answers the door saying, "What now?!" and carries a switch to church in case her kids act up, never wore shoes in the imagined house, only socks. Her real living room floor is made of splintered plywood. But the floors in the dream home were smooth as a skating rink. In the dream, Gilmore ran through the halls and slid across the floor in her socks — just like Tom Cruise in "Risky Business."

Thomas Terral, a 71-year-old businessman who lives on the other side of the lake, is among the top 5 percent:

He lives a life of relative luxury — nothing that would seem outlandish by national standards, but it is a far cry from life south of the lake. His living room has the vibe of an upscale ski lodge, with the heads of various animals — one is a bighorn sheep, I think -- staring at you from elevated angles. In the office, a bear rug has its mouth open, fangs showing. Terral shot it with a bow and arrow on a hunting trip in British Columbia. On the coffee table is a copy of Forbes magazine. Cover story: "Peace Through Profits."

Terral's family owned several farm-related businesses, including one that they sold in 2010.

"I felt like my mission was to supply as many jobs as I could," Terral said. "Of course, we were a small company, and I think the most employees we had was a little under 70 — 68 or so. What we did was probably the best thing we could do to help the situation."

"By 'the situation,'" Sutton writes, "he means the poverty south of the lake."