JACKSON – Two separate and diverse meetings overlapped Monday in Mississippi’s capital city.
One, held by House and Senate leaders who serve on Public Health and Medicaid committees, focused on issues surrounding the massive and controversial federal health care bill enacted into law earlier this year.
The other, a luncheon hosted by the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute of Government/Capitol press corps, focused on early childhood education.
At the luncheon, Steve Suitts, vice president of the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation, pointed out that one of seven Mississippi children live in extreme poverty, the highest rate in the nation. Put in real terms, living in extreme poverty means that $7 to $8 per day is spent on the child for the basics, such as food, shelter and clothing.
Suitts also pointed out the per capita income in Mississippi is more than $9,000 less than that of the average American.
In almost every category, Mississippi is first among the worsts.
Suitts said scientific studies conclude that comprehensive early childhood education classes will increase the high school graduation rate, reduce the need for students to repeat early grades and improve the overall economy of the state.
Others argue that Mississippi, facing budget problems, cannot afford to spend on early childhood education.
Suitts said Mississippi cannot afford not to. An investment in early childhood education by Mississippi, he reasoned, could be paying for itself in a short time and reaping dividends in the long run.
Back at the health care meeting, Richard Roberson, a special assistant to the executive director of the state Division of Medicaid, pointed out that Mississippi has a higher percentage of people than any state in the nation who would qualify to be on Medicaid under the new health care legislation.
These are people who earn less than $14,400 per year, or less than 133 percent of the federal poverty level.
Eventually, in 2017, the state will be expected to pick up a fraction of the costs of these people being added to the Medicaid rolls as part of the federal health care law. Mississippi will never be asked to pick up more than 10 percent of the costs, making it a good deal in many ways for the state and actually adding to the Mississippi economy, but it still will be a cost.
One can argue about the merits of the new health care legislation, which will not be fully implemented until 2014, but the fact is that many of those people earning less than $14,400 per year go to work every day but have no regular access to health care.
They simply cannot afford it.
Back at the Stennis luncheon, odds are those children growing up in extreme poverty will continue to live in extreme poverty as they become adults.
Some will fulfill the American dream, becoming successful beyond their upbringing.
But statistics tell us that more will end up in prison.
State Superintendent Tom Burnham says Mississippi has a higher percentage of children enter kindergarten unprepared to learn than any other state. Yet Mississippi spends far less on early childhood education than any other Southern state and less per pupil on K-12 education than just about any any other state in the nation.
Sure, there are problems in Mississippi schools. But one could argue the state gets a good bang for the buck considering the odds Mississippi educators face.
During the past 25-30 years, Mississippi has actually made significant strides. Despite those strides, the state still lags the rest of the nation in nearly every area. It appears that with every two steps forward there are one and one-half steps or more backward.
Monday’s meetings had some things in common.
One dealt with providing health insurance for those who cannot afford it. The other dealt with looking for ways to help more Mississippians succeed so they can afford their own health insurance.
Contact Bobby Harrison, the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau Chief at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (601) 353-3119.
Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal