Earlier this month I offered some reflections on Mississippi and why I am here. There are many things about the state and about living here that I love – the music, story telling, hospitality, and food – several of which derive from the cultural heritage of African Americans. The statewide politics and leadership sadden me all the more as a result of what I love about living here.
Just this week the Jesuit Social Research Institute of Loyola University published a new report on Mississippi (http://www.loyno.edu/jsri/sites/loyno.edu.jsri/files/StateOfWorkingMS2020.pdf). Here the most common job title is “cashier” and the median household income is one third lower than the national median – and less than half the median income in Massachusetts. Mississippi has the highest poverty rate in the nation, more than 10 percent of its people have no health insurance whatsoever. The state is 50th in education attainment, in part because so many young people with college degrees leave the state.
Just about the same time this report was released, Governor Tate Reeves gave his State of the State address. Since he couldn’t point to much success, he praised the state’s resilience. The few straws of improvement at which the Governor did grasp, do not stand up well to a fact check (https://mississippitoday.org/2021/01/26/fact-check-gov-tate-reeves-2021-state-of-the-state-address/). The Governor’s main policy initiative was to call for ending the state’s income tax, which would effectively reduce Mississippi’s already low investment in its people.
How did we get here? To some degree, the problems of Mississippi reflect the problems of the south, but more so. The south was left with a decimated economy after the Civil War. The federal government truncated Reconstruction after the election of 1876 (the same election Senator Ted Cruz referenced in the lead-up to violence at the Capitol). The end of Reconstruction meant the military no longer monitored Mississippi elections. The white minority then led violent efforts to suppress the black majority and deprive them of the right to determine the future of the state. White violence against black people was worse in Mississippi than elsewhere because it had a black majority, which was more threatening than the black minority in other states.
The south did not benefit from the Gilded Age of the second industrial revolution as it still had a primarily agricultural economy and lacked the natural resources to make steel or the infrastructure for manufacturing. And the federal government and big business allowed the economy to languish and invested instead in the west.
Some southern states thrived in the latter half of the 20th Century and since then through state and local investment – the Research Triangle in North Carolina, the Atlanta airport, Historic Charleston, in South Carolina, as examples. In contrast, Mississippi had slow growth throughout the 20th century (https://www.macrotrends.net/states/mississippi/population). Its population did not quite double while the national population quadrupled. Mississippi’s GNP growth rate is barely half the national average as it turns out that population growth is good for the economy and vice versa.
Voter suppression efforts continue as Mississippi was the only state where there was no option for no-contact voting during the pandemic and, just today, the House Apportionment and Elections Committee voted for a purge of the voter rolls. Mississippi is almost 40 percent black, but no African American has represented the State of Mississippi since Blanche K. Bruce left the U.S. Senate in 1881. If there is voter fraud, it’s pretty clearly not from black people.
I don’t believe the state’s leadership wants economic growth. New people would change the politics so current leadership has a stake in the status quo. Taxes are low here now, with no real upper bracket, which voters virtually everywhere support. There is no tax on retirement income regardless of the amount. The only high tax is the tax on groceries, which at 7 percent is the highest in the country. If low taxes and lack of investment were a successful growth strategy, Mississippi would be booming.
The second paragraph of the JSRI report reads: “Mississippi is among the states with the highest unemployment, poverty, and uninsured rates and the lowest wages, education spending, and educational attainment. Such statistics are a recipe for poor statewide economic development and long-term hardship for workers and families even before the health and economic onslaught of COVID-19.” The report ends with a series of recommendations that have the potential to transform the state and grow its economy through investment in its people and its infrastructure.
After 150 years of the same policies, it might be worth exploring a little change – perhaps investing in the people who make the state so special. Otherwise, while the state may remain a good place to retire, Mississippians shouldn’t expect their kids to stay where there is little opportunity for growth.
P.S. Earlier this week, my friend Debbie Weil interviewed me for her podcast. She asked great questions about polling, politics, and living in Mississippi. Do check it out: https://gapyearforgrownups.simplecast.com/episodes/diane-feldman