By Don Lee
Magnolia Wilson used to spend at least $150 a month filling up her 2002 Mercury Sable _ about 12 percent of her monthly take-home pay of $1,240. But the drop in oil prices over the last few months has put real money in her pocket. In many places in Mississippi, the cost of gas is less than $2 a gallon, compared with over $3 just six months ago.
"I don't buy too much for myself," said Wilson, who has a 50-mile daily commute to her job at a thrift store in Tutwiler, a dilapidated town in the Mississippi Delta whose one acclaim is as the birthplace of the blues.
Now, she says, she can afford to buy clothes or a pair of shoes. "It's a big help. Believe it or not, it's a big help."
Few places in the U.S. are benefiting from lower gas prices as much as Mississippi. Residents spend about 6 percent of their after-tax income on gasoline, more than any other state. Nationally, the average is less than 4 percent.
One reason gas makes such a big difference in Mississippi is that the state ranks as one of the most rural in the nation. People drive a lot of miles.
When gas prices were much higher, the next service station was never far from Wilson's mind. She almost always put in $20 at a time, and that meant she had to stop every three days to refill.
They're pleasant stops now, she said. She's thrilled to see the fuel-gauge needle move past the halfway point.
The gas savings have been like a pay raise, scarce in these times, and can be seen inside the cupboards and refrigerator in Wilson's three-bedroom home that she shares with her disabled younger sister.
They live in a community once called Dirty Corners, renamed New Hope about a decade ago after the last of the residents moved out of shacks that had no indoor plumbing.
With her fuel bill cut almost in half, Wilson has been stocking up on tissues, detergent and other small things for the house.
"We got a little more pork chops and more chicken and ground beef," said the 61-year-old. "I'm saving pretty good."
As a small concrete contractor, Phillip Willard of Clarksdale hauls his pickup up and down the country roads, past bayous with moss-draped cypress trees and vast stretches of fields speckled with cotton and other crops.
Willard, 54, figures he spends $150 to $200 a week for gas. In the past he dealt with the high costs by making as few trips as possible.
"When you get a call to look at a job, I'd put it off till tomorrow if I could do it all at one time," he said of going out to give estimates. On a recent frigid afternoon, Willard was wearing knee-high boots and a hunting cap as he filled up his GMC Sierra truck. He put in premium at $2.29 a gallon.
"The worst place to come is the gas pump and the grocery store," he said. "Now it's just the grocery store."
Gas can be a budget breaker for many families here. The state has the highest jobless rate in the nation, most recently at 7.2 percent, compared with 5.7 percent for the U.S. overall. In much of the Mississippi Delta, unemployment is in double digits.
"The scarcity of jobs means a lot of people are driving good distances to work," said James C. Cobb, a University of Georgia history professor who has written widely on Mississippi and the South.
So cheap gas is more than just a few extra dollars. It is peace of mind. "That's the best relief we've had in a long time," said Johnny Jefferson, 52, whose work hours at a gas station convenience store in Tunica were shaved last summer after the closing of the nearby Harrah's casino hotel and golf course.
With the drop in pump prices, the clerk said, sales have picked up in recent weeks for drinks, cigarettes and other food items. And that might give him a bit more job security, if not a few more hours of work every week.
Years after the end of the recession, cheaper gas is finally bringing back simple pleasures.
For weeks, Carolyn Mack, a 33-year-old nurse at Tutwiler Clinic, has been squirreling away the gas savings.
Between her and her husband, a bus driver whose personal vehicle is a Dodge Ram truck, they put in hundreds of miles a week on the road for their jobs and chauffeuring their two children.
Carolyn Mack logs 80 miles a day driving from home in Coahoma County to the clinic, started and run by Catholic nuns to serve the community of Tutwiler.
Before oil prices dropped, Mack says the large gas tabs were frustrating but manageable. The bigger problem was that many patients couldn't afford them. Lacking gas money, some of them missed appointments, she said.
Recruiting volunteer drivers to give rides was tough.
"We prayed for gas prices to drop for so long," said Mack, a licensed practical nurse who earns $17.40 an hour.
Now, Mack is dropping the extra $10 to $20 a week she saves into a big cheese-ball jar. She'll empty it later in the year when it's time for her family's annual reunion out of town.
"Not as many people came last summer for financial reasons," she said of the gathering in Little Rock, Ark. She expects a better turnout this time. "It'll be a whole lot cheaper now."
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