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BILL CRAWFORD — Study shows rural Mississippi drifting into distress

“What was once a country of disparate places that converged towards prosperity is now a country of places drifting further apart,” reports the bipartisan Economic Innovation Group (EIG). Rural areas are the most impacted.

This study corroborates my earlier column that population trends suggest declining prosperity in Mississippi’s rural counties.

The EIG study found population increasing in the better off counties while it was declining in the worse off counties. Population, however, was not used as a measure. The study used these criteria: 1) percent adult population with no high school diploma; 2) housing vacancy rate; 3) percent working age adults not working; 4) poverty rate; 5) ratio of county income over state income; 6) change in number of jobs; 7) change in number of businesses.

From these criteria, EIG performed a county-by-county comparison using two distinct time periods, 2007-2011 and 2012-2016.

What the study showed was a “great reshuffling” following the Great Recession.

“In the years following the recession, top-tier places have thrived, seeing meteoric growth in jobs, businesses, and population. Meanwhile, the number of people living in America’s most distressed zip codes is shrinking as the nature of distress becomes more rural.”

The study further notes that the gaps in well-being between prosperous areas and other areas have grown wider.

Mississippi had nine counties rated better off in both periods analyzed while 73 rated worse off. DeSoto, Madison, Rankin, Lafayette, Lamar, Lee, and Jackson rated better off in both periods. Marshall and Tate replaced Harrison and George in the later period.

The study showed only 7% of Mississippians residing in prosperous zip codes (second only to West Virginia) while 41.9% resided in distressed zip codes (the highest proportion among all states).

Other findings included: 1) prosperous zip codes were home to lots of professional workers while at risk zip codes were home to lots of blue collar workers; 2) minorities were over-represented in distressed communities; 3) prosperous communities added more net new businesses than the other 80% percent of zip codes combined from 2012 to 2016; 4) Americans in marginal communities continued to fall out of work deep into the recovery; 5) the geography of well-being largely reflects the geography of college-educated workers.

Looking at changes since the Great Recession, EIG reported, “Amid the reshuffling wrought by the fractured recovery, educational attainment has emerged as the sharpest fault-line separating thriving communities from struggling ones. Urban areas are ascendant, rural areas are in flux, and suburbs retain their outsized claim on the map of U.S. prosperity.”

(Another study projected that by 2040 over 85% of the U.S. population will live in urban areas.)

The EIG study concluded with this message: “Positive national statistics must not blind us to these divergent local realities or breed complacency in our needed efforts to expand access to opportunity to new corners of the country.”

The same goes for Mississippi. Positive statewide statistics driven by a handful of counties must not blind us to distressing realities in our rural counties.

Note to conservatives: EIG sees capitalism as the means to revitalize worse off counties in three ways: 1) private investment; 2) entrepreneurship and the growth of new business; and 3) a more innovative and accessible U.S. economy.

» BILL CRAWFORD is a syndicated columnist from Meridian.

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