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Mississippi’s ‘Brain-Drain’

Teen pregnancy, ‘anti-intellectual’ culture blamed for economic woes

As a tracker of Mississippi’s economic and population shifts, Pete Walley has looked closely at the 2010 census numbers on the state and its counties.

What he’s seeing, he says, is a six-decade-old theory on population migration playing out in the Magnolia State: “Those that can will migrate to find better opportunities.”

That opportunity is most often economic, but quality of life is a factor, as well, said Walley, director of long-range planning for the Mississippi Bureau of Economic Research.

“A professor in the ’50s came up with the idea that people vote with their feet.”

He theorizes that tendency to vote with the feet explains why more people left than came into the state the past decade.

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Mississippi escaped placement among the net losers of population in the 2010 census by showing a 3.8 percent rise in people living here. But births over deaths accounted for the increase, according to the census, which shows 403,008 births and 263,192 deaths from July 2000 through July 2009.

On the migration side, Mississippi had 18,973 more people leave than move in. The most recent one-year sample, July 2008-July 2009, showed 44,125 births over 28,934 deaths.

The out-migration pattern began at the start of World War II and lasted through the 1980s, Walley said. “Only in the 1990s did we have some semblance of a return (of the later generations of people who had left). Now we’re seeing people move back out again.”

The pattern became the most pronounced in the 1960s, when Mississippi lost about 200,000 people a year, while gaining only about 65,000 annually through births, according to Walley.

It’s not just the number of departures that concern Walley. “The key thing is that we lose those that have the higher capability. With those with four-year degrees and higher we have a net loss of those people. We lose the best and the brightest.”

As an example, he cited the city he suspects has the highest concentration of Mississippi State University engineering graduates: Huntsville, Ala., where jobs in military technology and aerospace are located.

“That concentration is not here in Mississippi yet we produced that human capital,” he lamented.

On the human capital index, according to Walley, Mississippi has never ranked better than 48th in the nation.

The brain-drain helps to ensure the cycle continues: Economic strength doesn’t come until the skilled and educated stay home, but the skilled and educated won’t stay home until there is economic strength.

The population specialists working for the Census Bureau don’t expect that cycle to reverse itself for at least the next 39 years. The bureau projects Mississippi will have 3.2 million people in 2050. It has 2.98 million today.

“They don’t expect our population to grow,” Walley said. “We’re growing at a compounded rate of 1 percent a year.”

Why the cycle?

“Half our children are born to single mothers,” Walley said. “How can you build a society and an economy when half your children are born to single mothers?”

Barbara Logue, the state’s chief demographer, said she tried in vain 20 years ago to give state policy makers a simple prescription for upgrading Mississippi’s base of human capital. “Stop people from having kids as teen-agers,” she said. “That’s the one thing that would turn this state around.”

Households headed by a single woman with a child under 18 have a poverty rate of 50 percent, noted Logue.

“With a married couple with kids under 18 it’s less than 10 percent,” she added.

The costs are enormous, both socially and economically, noted Logue, part of the Mississippi’s Bureau of Economic Research.

“The prisons are full of kids that came from households with no daddy.”

’Dissing Education

Over many decades, a conventional wisdom developed in Mississippi that going to work counted for far more than getting an education.

At least that’s how Walley and Logue see it.

“We have a culture that is anti-intellectual,” Logue said. “I think we have a lot of people in this state who do not see the value of education for their children. I know people who are hostile to other people volunteering to help their children in learning to read.”

Noted Walley, “For 200 years, we told a large group of people, not just blacks, that education doesn’t matter — what you have to do is get out there and work.”

Thus, 70 percent of ninth-graders in the Delta fail to earn a diploma, he said. Statewide it’s 40 percent of ninth-graders.

Such numbers poorly position the state to take part in a future in which the growth opportunities will be knowledge-based jobs, Walley said.

The 1970s marked an earlier period in which economic change caught the state flat-footed and a recovery is yet to occur, he said. “Through the late 1970s to early 1980s we went up the mechanization chain. We were one of the first states that had an economic development strategy. We didn’t know it but sometime in the mid ’70s the world started changing.”

The change came as manufacturing plants began moving offshore and technology brought immense efficiencies to manufacturing, Walley explained.

Mirroring the nation, Mississippi’s percentage of manufacturing jobs fell from 26 percent in 1994 to 14 percent today “and still falling,” he said.

“What kind of jobs are we going to give our people to go forward with in the next 25 to 35 years?”

If all the ingredients for success were in place, Walley said, Mississippi would be preparing its population for knowledge-based jobs in innovations, information and productivity-based processes.

“That is a different game to play than working with your back.”

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