By Sid Salter
STARKVILLE – The weekend’s wall-to-wall coverage of Republican presidential nominee Gov. Mitt Romney’s choice of Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate ignored what for many of us in the “flyover” states are the hard facts of the 2012 presidential election.
At the Neshoba County Fair, the state’s elected officials preached slow and cautious optimism on the state’s economy. That optimism is justified. But here in what is still the poorest state in the union, there are two numbers that have a great deal to do with establishing an accurate measure of the state’s economic health – the unemployment rate and the price of gasoline.
As of the latest numbers from the state Department of Employment Security, Mississippi’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 8.8 percent. The unadjusted number was 9.8 percent – and both those numbers compare against a national unadjusted unemployment rate of 8.4 percent.
Those numbers, however, are somewhat deceiving. On the up side, a number of counties are well ahead of the national jobless average of 8.4 percent with Rankin at 5.9 percent, Madison at 7.2 percent, DeSoto at 7.3 percent, Lamar at 7.4 percent, Jones at 7.7 percent, Neshoba at 7.8 percent and Scott at 8 percent.
But beyond those seven counties, the jobless rate in the remaining 75 counties exceeds the national average and 56 of the state’s 82 counties have jobless rates that exceed the state average as well with jobless rates ranging from 10 percent to 17.9 percent. Eight counties – Sunflower, Tunica, Noxubee, Claiborne, Humphreys, Jefferson, Holmes and Clay – exceed a 15 percent rate of joblessness with Clay highest at 17.9 percent.
Couple those facts with the rising price of gasoline and one begins to see the old Mississippi economic “double whammy” at play. The state’s economy takes a big lick with high jobless rates and then takes a corresponding second blow when gas prices rise and consume an even higher percentage of family, business and government budgets.
The Oil Price Information Service this week said the national average gas price of $3.66 was higher than a year ago, the first time that has happened since April. Mississippi’s average price of gas is currently at $3.42 per gallon.
In a report earlier this year, OPIS outlined how Mississippi’s poverty in terms of low per capita income makes gas prices here more painful to consumers than in more affluent areas of the U.S. Back in March 2011, with gas prices here at exactly $3.42 per gallon on average, OPIS estimated that Mississippians were spending 13.2 percent of their total income on gasoline at $3.42 per gallon while the national average was 7.92 percent of total income spent for gasoline nationwide.
It stands to reason that the state with the lowest per capita income would also be the state with the people most vulnerable to rising gasoline prices.
The bottom line is that with fewer Mississippians employed and with those who are employed paying a higher percentage of their total income for the ability to commute to the jobs they have, the state’s economy remains vulnerable, particularly vulnerable to rising gas prices.
That economic “double whammy” contributes to a national political landscape in which there is no single issue in the 2012 elections more persuasive than the future of the nation’s economy. The higher the jobless rate and the higher the price of gas, the worse President Obama’s chances of re-election become – regardless of the Romney-Ryan matchup on the GOP presidential ticket.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org.