The current Mississippi Legislature seems to be giving more than passing consideration to legislation with the potential to enhance the human condition than has been the case in the past. The attention is coming from both internal and external influences.
A growing awareness of the social and economic plight of many Mississippi citizens (internal influences) combined with a push from federal mandates (external influences) is serving to make several relevant policy debates unavoidable. Consequently, now is a good time to pause and reflect on where we are.
Unfortunately, many of Mississippi’s citizens are entitled to a wide array of monetary benefits from government. Mississippi has for decades been mired at or near the bottom rung of the personal income ladder. Thus, when a certain threshold of poverty is established below which one is eligible for government assistance, Mississippi inevitably will have a significant segment of its population entitled to related benefits.
There are a number of areas that are currently being considered for major program changes by Mississippi policymakers. Some are necessary to address mandates coming from the federal level while others hold the potential to lift many Mississippi citizens up from the lowest levels and perhaps beyond the need for entitlements. The three general categories that are receiving more attention than ever are education, early childhood issues and health care.
The story is a rather simple one. Many Mississippians are entitled by current definitions to a number of federal and state benefits by virtue of their low incomes and related conditions. In addition, the embarrassing state of personal health in Mississippi serves to underline the paradoxes of poverty in the state. Who has not cringed at the news stories pointing out that Mississippi is a state that simultaneously contains the most obese as well as the most malnourished of the nation’s population?
The key to the correction of so many of these conditions would be a rise in income for so many of Mississippi’s citizens that they would no longer be eligible or in need of solutions that can only come from government. Admittedly, such a turn of events is only the stuff of dreams at this point. But lo and behold, where the mere mention of any bold attempts to change the course of these human conditions by legislation would have been scoffed at in the past as the stuff of a stray liberal interloper, several pertinent measures are hanging around this year for further discussion.
Major changes in education are being discussed. An article in one of the state’s leading newspapers recently talked of how millions of “mid-pay, mid-skilled” jobs have already disappeared. Additionally, much of today’s high tech innovation is aimed at mass mechanization and the elimination of human labor in favor of astounding new capabilities of computer technology. The innovators who create the technology will survive as long as they keep pace. Also, the legislature is the feverish discussion regarding charter schools, which is also spurring a discussion over how we will maintain and fund traditional public schools.
Perhaps of even greater significance in the realm of human capital development is the first ever serious discussion of pre-kindergarten (Pre-K) education in Mississippi. Bills have been introduced in both house of the Mississippi Legislature to launch the first serious debates on Pre-K programs. As usual, the issue of funding immediately comes to the fore. However, in a fortuitously timed announcement President Barak Obama launched a national initiative in behalf of universal Pre-K in his State of the Union address. It would indeed be wise to prepare to take seriously the availability of federal largesse to fuel Mississippi’s efforts to join the other 41 states already in the Pre-K business.
Finally, there is the health care issue and the necessity and role of Medicaid and “expanded Medicaid” contained in Obamacare. There are currently some 600,000 poor, disabled and elderly on the Medicaid rolls in Mississippi. Expanded Medicaid would take in nearly 300,000 citizens often referred to as the “working poor.” The key is that the federal government would pay 100 percent of the price tag for expanded Medicaid through 2017 and 90 percent thereafter. The age old clash between the primacy of state authority and perceived federal intervention casts a pall over this debate. The greater reality, however, is found in the discussion over the ultimate share of costs that will be required from Mississippi coffers and the question of whether expansion of cash flow within the health care industry will be sufficient to offset Mississippi’s increased responsibilities.
The good news is that the debates by Mississippi policymakers have begun in all of these areas. The not so good news is that, as always, Mississippi’s limited resources will continue for the time being to relegate many of these initiatives to “pipe dream” status.
Perhaps the most ominous news is that the economic and human capital development train is leaving the station. What will it take from all of us to make sure Mississippi is on board?