JACKSON — For long-term economic gain, Mississippi needs a culture change that encourages people to put greater value on their own health and education, according to state economist Darrin Webb.
He spoke in Jackson at the annual conference of the Mississippi Economic Policy Center, a group that advocates public policies to help people with low or moderate incomes.
Webb said Mississippi ranks 49th out of 50 in the percentage of adults with a high school diploma and 48th in the percentage of adults 25 or older with a bachelor’s degree.
Mississippi is one of the unhealthiest states, with the highest obesity rate in the nation. Mississippi also has the highest rate of births to unwed mothers, and Webb said that perpetuates problems with poverty.
Webb said Mississippi needs to improve its “human capital” — the readiness of people to work because they’re educated and healthy and they have a sense of responsibility and a strong work ethic.
“Until Mississippi addresses the human capital issue, I see Mississippi continuing to get further and further behind the nation,” Webb said.
Several people in the audience were advocates who seek more public funding for education, healthcare, childcare and other issues. Webb — who often provides legislators information about the state economy — did not take a position for or against any funding proposals.
He said Mississippi, like much of the nation, has seen very slow economic growth the past two years.
“It still feels like a recession, but we are in recovery,” Webb said.
He estimated Mississippi’s economy will grow only seven-tenths of 1 percent this year and about 1.7 percent in 2012. He told legislators last month that over the past 20 years, Mississippi averaged 2.7 percent annual economic growth during expansions.
The snail’s pace of economic growth will mean state revenue and state budgets will continue to be tight.
Mississippi voters on Nov. 8 will elect a new governor and new lieutenant governor and will fill all 174 legislative seats.
Hope Enterprise Corp. CEO Bill Bynum urged health and education advocates at the policy conference to push candidates for nuanced proposals to improve Mississippi’s future.
“I think the changes in leadership create some opportunities,” Bynum said.
Hope Enterprise Corp. works on development in low-income areas in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. The corporation also manages the Mississippi Economic Policy Center.