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Getting off the bottom

From the Ground Up

What if Mississippi could change just one statistic and see the results listed below?

• an additional 30,531 persons added to the state’s prime-age work force

• an 11.8% decline in the unemployment rate

• a 7.1% increase in annual earnings for the average, full-time worker

• a 20% reduction in poverty

These are startling numbers.

What is this magical statistic and how do we go about changing it? Is it the panacea that Mississippi needs?

The answers to those questions can be found in an article by Barbara Logue in the current issue of Mississippi’s Business, a publication of the Center for Policy Research and Planning, Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning. It’s titled “Rising Graduation Rates — A Panacea for Mississippi.” In it she discusses several hypothetical questions: If the fraction of high school graduates and college graduates were raised to the national average, what would happen to the number of workers, average annual earnings, and related economic variables?

Would the state be better off? Would scarce tax dollars be well spent in an all-out effort to raise graduation rates at the high school level and beyond?

The answer to the first question is presented above, the answer to second question is obvious and the answer to the third question is the subject of further discussion in the article. Logue points out that while the above statistics are impressive, other factors must be addressed in order for Mississippi to move more fully into a 21st century economy. She points out that our relatively low labor participation rate is significantly affected by a high prevalence of serious health problems. For example, Mississippi ranks first in the percent of population with hypertension, second highest in obesity and fifth highest with a sedentary lifestyle. All of these things result in diseases that are mainly preventable if people are educated and motivated. She puts it so nicely.

Allow me to use my words.

Folks, we have met the enemy and it is us. We need to get off our butts!

“Raising graduation rates, especially if this is accomplished through grade inflation and lowered expectations, will accomplish little in the absence of quality improvements,” according to Logue.

I couldn’t agree more. But how do we do it?

I believe that I found part of the answer several weeks ago in Tupelo where the Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi presented its annual report to the public. Jack Reed, local community and business leader, gave an inspiring message on what it took to go from the poorest region in the country in the 1940s to being a leader in economic development and job creation in today’s market. Also, demographic information on the counties in the Northeast Mississippi region was presented along with their — are you ready for this? — their goals for 2002.

The goals are categorized into seven areas: economic, education, public safety, health, social, housing and infrastructure. By the way, these goals were developed by local task forces. One of the prime movers in this effort is the CREATE Foundation, which is led by soft-spoken, efficient Mike Clayborne.

In summary, I think Barbara Logue’s article is an excellent piece on understanding what can happen to our statistics when Mississippi really meets its needs and I think that the Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi is an excellent model for the state to use to begin meeting those needs.

Phil Hardwick’s column on Mississippi business appears regularly in the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is hardwickp@aol.com.

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