LEADERSHIP ANYTOWN, MISSISSIPPI: YOUR TIME HAS COME …
The staff of the Stennis Institute has been fortunate to have had a number of opportunities to speak to community Leadership classes around Mississippi. Such events afford us the chance to meet civic-minded citizens from Mississippi’s wonderful small towns and rural counties. It was at one such speaking engagement in one of our state’s notable small towns a couple of weeks ago that I was hit cold in the face by the magnitude of the challenge that this inaugural leadership group has agreed to tackle.
It has become impossible to avoid the media and politician-driven hand-wringing over the coming economic apocalypse scheduled for Aug. 2, 2011. It is on that date that the national debt ceiling must be raised or, according to most experts, the United States economy will lead the world in a calamitous free fall. They tell us that the impact of such an occurrence will be the virtual shut down of all government programs and among other things the market-driven explosion of interest rates into stratospheric levels. The only way to avoid such a financial Armageddon will be for Republicans and Democrats to back away from the current condition of intractable brinksmanship and come to an agreement around massive spending cuts. Either way, the largest reduction in government programs that any of us has ever seen is building on the horizon. That, however, is not exactly what this column is about.
Knowing the day of reckoning is coming is plenty enough. The exact number of trillions of dollars of deficit, the reasons for the gap and who is to blame will be subjects for another day. The focus here is on the plight of Mississippi, her small towns and rural crossroads and the folks that call them home. As if the brewing August economic calamity were not enough, it seems that the news has been piling on lately. For example, there were the headlines last week proclaiming that, in this age of medical advances life expectancy for Mississippians dropped over the last seven years. Furthermore, more than half of Mississippi’s counties exhibited a decline in the life expectancy of their citizens.
Continuing in the human capital vein, Bill Bynum, CEO of Hope Enterprise Corporation, provided an eye-opening analysis of 2010 Census data in a recent Sunday Clarion- Ledger. In addition to pointing out that based on the 2010 Census there are now 381,514 minority children in Mississippi as compared to 374,041 white children, Bynum goes on to add that the average net worth for white Mississippi households is $71,888 as compared to a net worth of a mere $10,500 for minority households.
Compounding problems in rural states like Mississippi is the accelerating “brain drain.” This has been documented in similar rural states in research by, among others, Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas in their book entitled “Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America.” The rural brain drain was also cited by Cliff Holly, interim director of the University of Mississippi’s Center for Population Studies, as a potential contributor to the decline in life expectancy of Mississippians cited earlier. In short, the brightest and better educated are the most mobile, and thus find more jobs matching their talents elsewhere leaving the less capable behind.
What does this have to do with the plethora of “Leadership, Somewhere” programs that have proliferated around Mississippi? More specifically, Mississippi’s problems are big and growing, so where is the government when we need them? The fact is that many Mississippians have joined the chorus of those roundly condemning government at every level and demanding that government keep its taxing hands off of our pocket books. Usually, the demand that the government disappear forthwith is accompanied by the claim that benevolence should be left to individuals, churches and charities, and that it was government that caused the problem, and therefore it should have no role in solving it. Thus, one way or the other on Aug. 2 congratulations are in order for those determined to usher government out the door. Government will be virtually impotent or it will have willed itself to be significantly smaller.
Community leaders being molded today will have the chance of a lifetime to put those newly-honed skills to work. That leadership certificate will, of necessity, mean much more than a new entry on a resume signifying a few months worth of thinking out loud about future community prospects. It is at the community level that government programs at all levels impact real lives. Yet, the federal government is leaving, State government is too poor and local government is overwhelmed. To the Leaders graduating from the Leadership programs, this is the time and these are the conditions that you asked for. Your communities, your churches, your charities, your foundations and indeed individual citizens must step into the vacuum that government will leave for you. The quality of your leadership may indeed determine what the future of your community will be or if it will have a future at all.