SID SALTER: Numbers strongly suggest Legislature’s true priorities

By Sid Salter

STARKVILLE – As the new Republican majority controlling state government claimed victory by passing the Children’s Protection Act with ease in the House, it’s clear that even more fundamental – and more politically difficult – challenges loom down the public policy road.
The numbers make it plain that improving public education, accelerating economic development and implementing wise management the state’s responsibilities for public health care and other assistance to the poorest people in America are the issues where voters are looking to the GOP for success, where Democrats over the last century often failed. As for Democrats, those tasks will prove a vexing riddle.
Mississippians have now received formal presentations of the legislative and budget priorities of both Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves – and through the increasing availability of online legislative monitoring resources, can see the legislative priorities of individual members of the state Senate and the state House of Representatives. Jobs, education and fiscal responsibility were common themes, but partisan debate will continue during the extended 2012 legislative session over the means Bryant, Reeves, and House Speaker Philip Gunn propose to address those challenges.
Yet make no mistake; Mississippi remains the poorest state in the union. With a median annual income of $36,850 and 21.8 percent of the population living below the federal poverty line, that fact is undeniable. Some 18.7 percent of our people don’t have health insurance and 10.4 percent are unemployed, the fourth highest rate in the country behind Nevada, California and Rhode Island.
Not only that, but Mississippi and the contiguous states represent five of the poorest 10 states in the nation. Here’s how our neighboring states are faring: Alabama (median income $42,218, 16.1 percent poverty rate, 14.4 percent without health insurance and 8.1 percent unemployed); Arkansas (median income $38,600, 16.5 percent poverty rate, 18.5 percent without health insurance and 7.7 percent unemployed); Louisiana (median income $41,896, 18 percent poverty rate, 18 percent without health insurance and 6.8 percent unemployed); and Tennessee (median income $40,026, 16.1 percent poverty rate, 14.7 percent without health insurance and 8.7 percent unemployed).
The correlation between the state’s poverty rate and the state’s education attainment numbers are undeniable. With 21.8 percent of Mississippians living in poverty, 20.5 percent of the state’s population over the age of 25 has less than a high school education. A total of 51.2 percent of Mississippians over the age of 25 have a high school diploma or less formal education.
The legacy of the South as it evolved from an agrarian economy in the last century was to compete for industrial jobs primarily by offering cheap labor. That model is forever broken by the fact that cheap and plentiful labor is available overseas. To compete as a state and as a region for the jobs of the future, Mississippi and our neighbors must set about constructing a new economic development model.
That new model must offer an educated workforce nimble enough to utilize state-sponsored workforce training and to utilize the ongoing research of comprehensive state universities as incubators for new and evolving industries. Quality jobs follow quality schools.
In other words, the road to future opportunity, growth and jobs in Mississippi runs through classrooms from pre-kindergartens to graduate schools. With more opportunity, growth and jobs, there will be less poverty, more taxpayers, and perhaps an ultimate reprieve for Mississippi from the dubious title of “the poorest people in America.”
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com.