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Before Mississippi’s TANF Scandal, There Were Plantations and Haley Barbour’s Port Scheme

The plantation-owner model lingers in the Mississippi imagination. It’s manifested, for example, in the local soft spot for white columns on McMansions and even gas stations in suburban communities.

The plantation archetype, however, is not a yokel, but the opposite. To make money off his cash crop—that’s the definition of a plantation over a self-sustaining farm—the plantation owner had to master credit lines and commodity futures in a far-off financial market and put that mastery into play on his home soil. His success rested on being a bifurcated practitioner. His feet in his home dirt, his head attuned elsewhere.

I wrote a version of those words in mid-2008 for the Oxford American magazine about how then-Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour had channeled $570 million in Hurricane Katrina housing recovery funds away from rebuilding housing for poor Gulf Coast residents and toward improving the state port at Gulfport.

Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast on Aug, 23, 2005, including decimating much of the housing. Turkey Creek, a Black community in north Gulfport, suffered immense losses and home damage. Photo © David Rae Morris

In words not that different from what we’re hearing now about the arrogant and greedy redirection of federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds, Barbour’s excuse for hubristic diversion was economic development.

Sinking recovery money into the port would bring 6,500 direct jobs, the Yazoo City native declared in 2009. His economic trickle-down policy hit the right note with the national free-market conservative audience—the powerful Washington lobbyist and former part head tested the GOP presidential waters for 2008, in fact, stymied in part by his own words about racism in his hometown.

Barbour’s port move, however, was at the expense of low- and middle-income Coast residents cut out of the state’s recovery aid framework that was weighted toward homeowners with insurance policies. The promised high-paying jobs hardly materialized, either.

Amid the outrage around the money grab of $77 million in TANF funds discovered in a state audit of 2016-2020 TANF spending, Haley Barbour’s $570-million port gambit must not be forgotten. And it’s historically instructive. The willingness

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