A graduate student managed to ruin my last day of spring break. It all had to do with my last lecture before the break and a Census Bureau report that she forwarded to me and which caused me to reach for my calculator.
The story, written by Hope Yen of the Associated Press and appearing in Yahoo! News, centered on a Census report released a few days earlier that used 2012 Census estimates to highlight population shifts in the United States over the period from 2010 through 2012. The two main points of data in the Census analysis were county-by-county “natural population growth” (births over deaths) and growth or decline based on migration by domestic citizens into or out of a given county.
The major conclusion that jumped off of the page of the study was that rural counties are dying out (pun intended) because the rate of deaths is exceeding the number of births in many rural counties. A second conclusion was that if these counties would have any growth at all it must come from people migrating into the county from elsewhere in the country in order to compensate for the decline in natural population replacement. Finally, the Census report revealed that metropolitan areas are experiencing steady, and in some cases, rapid population growth.
Naturally, my thoughts turned to the question of how Mississippi fit this national pattern. A couple of hours of drilling down into the data led to the conclusion that the fit is not necessarily a good one. For example, the Census report revealed that one in three counties nationally are dying off due to the rate of deaths exceeding the rate of birth and younger (child-bearing age) citizens are migrating toward urban areas where jobs are more plentiful and higher paying. In the case of Mississippi, an eye-popping 58 of 82 counties experienced a decrease in total population over the two-year study period. However, in contrast to the national report, only 14 of Mississippi’s 82 counties have experienced a decrease in population based on deaths exceeding births. The remaining 68 counties revealed that births outpaced deaths.
On the other hand, 67 Mississippi counties experienced a loss of population due to people leaving the respective counties. This seems to be a clear case of the brain drain – the more mobile leave to seek opportunities elsewhere. In turn, those remaining demonstrate a higher birth rate. This cuts against the findings of the nationally-focused Census report. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Mississippi Delta counties where there is an increased level of live births over deaths of all types and a significant out-migration in every county, thereby resulting in a negative population growth in every Delta county. The Delta is not the only place in Mississippi where this occurs. Other rural counties exhibit a similar pattern.
Is there any good news? According to the Census report, there has been an overall population growth of 35,852, which is offset by an out-migration of 18,225. This leaves a net gain statewide of 17,627. There have been 24 counties where this 35,852 population growth has occurred. Of these, 14 counties are experiencing growth in both births over deaths and in numbers migrating into the counties to live. These would appear to be the healthiest most growth-oriented counties at this point.
In north Mississippi, there are DeSoto, Lafayette, Lee, Pontotoc and Union counties. For the most part, these counties have most recently been positively affected by the arrival of the Toyota manufacturing facility, and DeSoto County is a classic suburban county under the umbrella of Memphis, Tenn.
The suburban Jackson counties of Madison and Rankin feed off of the Capital City for growth. In the southern part of Mississippi there are Forrest, George, Hancock, Harrison, Jones, Lamar and Stone counties. One would assume that these counties are benefitting from the repopulation of the coastal region after Hurricane Katrina.
There is any number of policy implications to be gained from observing these population shifts. The elevated birth rates in many counties perhaps portend the need to strongly consider pre-kindergarten programs in hopes of enhancing educational possibilities. In most cases, migration into a county presages the possibility of expanding tax bases so that counties realize increased revenues while holding the tax rate constant. Thus, reversing the brain drain, so to speak, creates numerous advantages for a county.
Currently, population growth is taking place across only 24 counties. It is intriguing to imagine what would happen if the number of growing counties doubled to 48, or even tripled to 72. Many of our problems that go unsolved due to the lack of resources would become relics of the past.
Dr. Marty Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.