STARKVILLE — Times are tough down on the farm and the small towns that surround them. Rural areas of Mississippi traditionally very heavily dependent on agriculture haven’t fared well in recent years due to low farm commodity prices combined with increased agricultural mechanization that has meant fewer farm workers are needed. Low skill manufacturing jobs in those areas have also been lost.
A major transformation of the state’s economy is underway as the population of Mississippi shifts from being predominantly rural to urban.
“There are certain areas of rural Mississippi that are doing okay,” said Bo Beaulieu, director of the Southern Rural Development Center in Starkville. “But other pockets of rural Mississippi aren’t doing well.”
Beaulieu said rural areas that are near large towns such as Jackson, Tupelo, Meridian and Hattiesburg are doing well because many residents can commute to the nearby population centers for jobs. But many counties that aren’t near metropolitan areas have economies that are stagnant or in decline.
The Delta area in particular has seen population flight and economic stagnation. Beaulieu said there are several factors in play. One is lack of a skilled, well-educated work force. More and more industries and manufacturers are seeking a skilled labor force, but rural areas have primarily workers with low skills and education levels.
Low-skill jobs such as those in the garment industry have been lost post NAFTA as industries have sought cheaper offshore labor. The jobs that have replaced those in rural areas tend to be service sector jobs, which don’t require a lot of skills or education, and are low paying.
About 75% of the jobs created in Mississippi in the 1990s were in the service sector. The replacement of manufacturing jobs with service sector jobs is a trend not just in Mississippi, but much of the rural South.
“We’re seeing a major, major transformation in the economy,” Beaulieu said. “The area is moving away from a goods producing economy-manufacturing and agriculture-to a service sector economy. Manufacturing and agriculture are declining in terms of the number of people involved and employed. Rural areas collect service sector jobs at the lower end such as fast food establishments, and service sector job aren’t providing much financial compensation.”
For rural areas to attract better paying jobs requires a better-educated workforce. Beaulieu advocates using federal tax incentives and empowerment zones to entice businesses to locate in impoverished rural areas. He said many areas in Mississippi, particularly in the Delta, would quality as empowerment zones.
A clear vision of how the rural areas should develop is also needed.
“We need to dedicate money for communities to come together and decide how they want to develop,” Beaulieu said. “They need capacity building money to allow all different sectors—education, business, religion-to come together through the government to decide what kind of economy they want. And then we need to give them the kind of resources they need to follow through on that kind of plan.”
“The community needs to take a stronger role in guiding its future, and then use tax incentives programs to match their vision. First we need to invest in local communities to plan the future. Second, we have got to invest more in education and in creating quality jobs. We need to create better-paying jobs with a future, jobs that have career ladders.”
Darrin W. Webb, a senior economist with the Institutions for Higher Learning, agrees steps should be taken to stop rural decline.
“The minuses are pretty obvious if you live in rural areas,” Webb said. “There are fewer job opportunities and the labor pool isn’t there to attract new industries. As more and more people move to urban places, the rural areas will continue to dry up. If we want rural areas to survive, this is not a good trend.”
The problem can easily snowball because it is mostly young, working-age people who are moving away from the rural areas in order to get good jobs. That primarily leaves the elderly, and that is not a good labor pool to attract new business. “The more people who move the harder it is to attract new business, and the harder it is to retain people who are there,” Webb said. “Rural areas are endangered, but it isn’t anything new. It has been going on for probably the past two decades. There have been periods of some short revivals, but for the most part the overall trend has been for people to move out of the rural areas. People are leaving the farm, and small towns.”
Thanks to a good highway system, and people who like living out in the country, rural areas adjacent to the urban areas are surviving and even thriving economically.
“People like the rural lifestyle, but you can’t stay there if there are no jobs,” Webb said. “If you can live in a rural area within driving distance of an urban area, you’ll be okay. I see this in Jackson. I myself drive in from Pelahatchie 40 minutes to work each day. I would rather drive the distance than live inside an urban area. I think that is a common sentiment. I see outer areas of Jackson doing well as far population growth. The areas of the state that are really hurt are rural areas that are not driving distance of urban places.”
Webb said jobs aren’t the only issue. Access to health care and shopping is also important. But, again, there is a snowball effect because when the population declines and people travel to larger cities to shop, small town businesses often are forced to close their doors.
“In small towns little hardware and grocery stories have closed shop because everyone is driving into the city to do their shopping at the Wal-Mart SuperCenter, and that means all the rural sales tax dollars are leaving the small rural towns,” Webb said. “And that is a large hit for these small towns that makes it even harder for the local governments to supply their normal services such as police, water, and fire protection.”
The rural-to-urban trend, however, does have its upside. People congregated together are more efficient as far as distribution of goods and services, says Barbara Logue, senior demographer for the IHL.
“People are attracted to cities because of opportunities for work, education, social life, malls, theater and other forms of recreation,” Logue said. “Rural life can get kind of boring, in other words. But there is such a thing as cities getting too big and then you have nightmare stories like Atlanta with its pollution and very long commutes. There is a downside to growth. Congestion in general can be a bad thing.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org or (228) 872-3457.