By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal
If you study Mississippi’s 2010 Census data in any detail, one conclusion is unavoidable: Population growth in this state is basically a zero-sum game.
The areas that are growing are doing so at the expense of those that are stalling or bleeding, both in-state and just across our border.
Mississippi’s 2010 Census shows a population of 2,967,297. That’s a modest 4.3 percent increase over the past decade.
It’s not spread evenly, by any means. The state has 122,639 more people than it did in 2000. Three counties alone – DeSoto, Rankin and Madison – had a combined increase of almost 101,000.
A safe assumption is that much of that came from Memphis and Shelby County in the case of DeSoto County’s remarkable 54,053 gain, or 50.4 percent over its 2000 population, and in Rankin and Madison County much of it came from Jackson, which lost nearly 11,000 residents, or close to 6 percent, and has been experiencing a steady population decline for three decades.
Additionally, of course, people who move into the metro Jackson area are now more likely to settle in the suburbs than in the capital city itself.
Another fast-growing county, Lamar in south Mississippi, grew by 42 percent. Meanwhile, nearby Hattiesburg – the principal city in the area and the state’s fourth largest – managed only 2.7 percent growth.
The biggest coast county – Harrison, where Biloxi and Gulfport are located – lost population post-Katrina, leading to big gains in counties to the immediate north.
Oxford grew at a phenomenal 60.9 percent rate, undoubtedly drawing people fleeing economically and socially depressed areas like the Delta, which saw dramatic population exodus. Greenville, for example, lost 17.4 percent of its population over the last 10 years.
Here in Lee County, the total population increased 9.4 percent, but Tupelo grew only 1 percent, compared to 11 percent in the 1990s.
While there are the exceptions such as Katrina’s impact on the Gulf Coast, almost all the areas making significant gains in population are doing so with an influx of primarily white, middle class and affluent people who are either moving out or deciding against moving into areas they regard as less desirable.
In other words, there aren’t any real population booms going on in Mississippi. It’s mostly just population shifts, with the biggest net gain for the state being the Memphis bleed-over into DeSoto County.
Who’s remaining in the cities that are losing population, like Jackson, Greenville, Vicksburg and Columbus? Minorities, primarily, and a disproportionate number of low-income people. Jackson is now about 80 percent African-American, its income levels dropping, and its disparities between the poor and remaining affluent widening.
As a general rule, the public schools have more support and are generally better performing in areas that are gaining population. Wherever there’s relative wealth, the schools do better; that’s a demonstrated reality. The folks left behind in the places people leave not only have a depleted tax base, they find weakened public support for public schools as those schools gradually resegregate.
You can look it up, as Daily Journal reporter Emily Le Coz did in a story published elsewhere in today’s paper: White flight and middle class flight of all races translates into higher taxes and worse schools for the people who stay behind.
Tupelo is in the process of figuring out how it will combat the onset of trends that will lead to what other cities around Mississippi have already experienced, without a stellar effort at a turnaround. Its virtual standstill in population and median income over the last decade is a loud wake-up call.
Look around Mississippi. The patterns are irrefutable.
Strong, growing communities have good schools and relatively low taxes. In communities where population is declining – even if it’s growing all around them – and white flight has taken hold, schools are struggling and taxes are high.
These are tough realities to recognize and even harder still to avoid. Mississippi’s Census shows it’s a natural pattern, and in a state that lags in overall education and per capita income, it’s just that much harder to overcome.
You certainly can’t force people to stay in a place or move there. The only solution is to make a place so attractive that people are drawn to it. In that sense, every community has at least a chance to control its own destiny – if it chooses.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.