How is your town/county/region doing? Most citizens really don't know

By Bill Crawford

How is your town/county/region doing? Most citizens really don’t know. Oh, they have opinions, but few have data, or know where to look for data, to inform their opinions.
Then, few towns/counties/regions make the effort to provide such data to citizens. A notable exception is northeast Mississippi. Each year the Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi, sponsored by the CREATE Foundation, prepares a “state of the region” report on its 16 counties. Data for the local to regional levels is included.
Of course having access to data doesn’t mean citizens actually access it. An online survey in the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal asked readers if the state of the region had improved over the past year. Nearly 80 percent voted “no.”
Those paying attention to the data had a different view. CREATE Senior Vice President Lewis Whitfield pointed to “successes we’ve enjoyed as a region” over the past year, including per capita income growth, highway construction, and a rebound in manufacturing.
How can the average citizen tell how his area is doing?
The best single indicator of area prosperity is population growth. People move to good places. The Census provides reliable population data every 10 years. It provides population estimates every year. Village to state data can be found at www.census.gov.
Another good indicator is employment. Job growth implies growing prosperity. Each month, the Mississippi Department of Employment Security publishes employment figures. Each year it publishes detailed employment information. County to state data can be found under “labor market information” at www.mdes.ms.gov.
Other useful indicators come from school district data. The trend in students receiving free and reduced price lunches can show the distribution of prosperity. The trend in student enrollment can reveal population trends. Student performance and graduation rates can portend opportunity or challenge. This data used to be easily found at the State Department of Education web site www.mde.k12.ms.us. Now you have to dig hard and may not find it all.
Health statistics, on the other hand, are easy to access under “vital records and statistics” at www.msdh.ms.gov. Infant mortality, teen births, disease mortality data, and other health factors reveal much about the vitality of an area.
While these indicators suggest how an area is doing, it takes looking at the trends from multiples data points to really know. For example, eroding population, employment, school performance, and health statistics can suggest a cycle of poverty. But a more comprehensive analysis should be done to make sure.
To help inform citizens the Mississippi Development Authority in 2005 proposed publishing an annual report card for each county. Negative responses from public officials and developers killed that idea.
While Northeast Mississippi citizens look over their annual report card, the rest of us might ask for one.
Bill Crawford (crawfolk@gmail.com) is a syndicated columnist from Meridian.