Mississippi: A state of change

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Published: March 20,2011

Tags: MBJ Columns, Phil Hardwick

Communities are constantly changing. Some change relatively slowly, as the decennial census data is revealing. Others change rather rapidly as exemplified by the civil uprisings in the Middle East. Still others change almost instantly because of natural disasters, as evidenced by recent earthquakes and floods.

As census data comes out it is apparent that the migration of the population from rural America to the suburbs continues. Although some rural communities are holding their own, and even thriving, others are searching for an economic existence to replace the one that has long gone. Two things, which at first glance may seem unrelated, seem to shed light on changing communities, especially those in Mississippi.

First, for the past few weeks the Mississippi Economic Council, as part of its Blueprint Mississippi initiative, has been conducting local sessions of business and community leaders throughout the state seeking their input on how to move the state forward. One of the questions asked of participants is follows:

Do you believe that Mississippi children will be able to find a good-paying job in Mississippi, or will they have to leave the state to find a good-paying job when they are ready to enter the workforce?

Participants were given a choice of the following two answers, as follows:

They will find good opportunities in Mississippi; or

They will have to leave Mississippi.

Below is a list of the cities ranked by the percentage in that particular meeting that selected “They will have to leave Mississippi.”

>> Gulfport – 64 percent; Greenwood – 58 percent; Natchez – 58 percent; Grenada – 57 percent; Jackson – 55 percent; Laurel — 53 percent; Greenville – 50 percent; Vicksburg – 50 percent; Tupelo – 45 percent; Brookhaven – 43 percent; Pascagoula – 43 percent; Starkville – 40 percent; Columbus — 37 percent; Hattiesburg – 34 percent.

At first glance it appears that the communities with the better local economies are more optimistic about the future of jobs for their young people. In any event, the results indicate that good jobs in Mississippi are critical to retaining some of the state’s best and brightest young people.

The MEC survey results are especially interesting in light of a book titled “Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America” (Beacon Press, July 2010), which is a discussion of the exodus of thinkers from middle America and the heartland. The authors, Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas, studied the social aspects of working class people who stay in their home towns and survive and prosper economically. They propound that such towns are hurt most when their brightest young people leave upon reaching adulthood. They also classified rural young people into the following categories:

>> The Achievers — those who are not only personally driven to succeed, but praised throughout their communities for their talent and achievements. They earn awards, go off to college, and never return because they have over-qualified themselves to return home.

>> The Stayers — those who want to make a go of it in the only place they have ever called home. They love their families, the community and the opportunity to raise their kids in the homeland, despite the fact that employment opportunities are limited and the chance to earn high wages low.

>> The Seekers — As Carr and Kefalas put it, “What the Seekers know, with the utmost certainty is that they do not want to stay in the countryside all of their lives.”

>> The Returners — Whether an Achiever or a Seeker, the Returners decide in time that there is no place like home, even if that means a lower standard of living or the abandonment of a dream.

Whatever the future holds for Mississippi and its future workforce it should be remembered that the primary determinate of where one resides is where one is employed.  It is therefore critical to have good jobs.  And yet, it is also critical to have a good workforce to attract good jobs.

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