BILL CRAWFORD: Too many better off not working

By Bill Crawford

Here’s the deal. Mississippi ranks at or near the bottom because so many of our people are poor.
So, what’s the plan? Well, we’ve had many plans, but nothing much has changed. I’ve been in on many of those plans.
Here’s my takeaway from those experiences:
• Too many of our working age people don’t have jobs.
• Too many of our jobs pay very little.
• Our politicians really don’t focus on solutions for items 1 and 2.
A study by the Upjohn Foundation for Blueprint Mississippi found “The State of Mississippi has historically had one of the lowest Labor Force Participation Rates in the United States.”
A look at Mississippi’s population age 20 to age 64 who are not in school, not in the military, and not incarcerated (2010 Census data) shows that 451,000 of these 1.69 million working age people were unemployed and not seeking employment, a whopping 26.7 percent.
Sixty percent of these are women, including moms who elect to stay home to raise and home school children.
A look at the men, only part of these numbers, showed 22 percent of them unemployed and not seeking employment.
Why do so many not seek work?
We don’t have enough jobs? They don’t have skills needed for jobs? They operate in the black market economy (drugs, etc.)? They’re better off not taking low wage jobs?
All of the above are true, but let’s focus on the last point.
True story: A rural hospital and nursing home recruited graduates of a community college grant-funded nurse aid training program.
None completed applications.
They said the jobs paid so little they were better off unemployed.
Their wages would not offset loss of food stamps, housing subsidies, and Medicaid.
In Mississippi, starting wages for nurse aides average $8.12 an hour or $16,890 per year without overtime.
According to a report published annually by the Mississippi Department of Employment Security, 37 percent of all jobs in 2011 offered starting wages below $9 per hour.
All this suggests that if we want to address our low rankings, we’ve got to find a way to incentivize more people to work rather than the opposite.
Suggestions: Rather than give away millions in tax incentives for outlet mall jobs in Pearl or spend extra millions to support tourism jobs (both among the lowest wage jobs we have), provide tax incentives to traditionally low wage businesses that will increase their starting wages.
Find a way, through Medicaid expansion, a state-operated insurance exchange, or some pool mechanism, to provide affordable health insurance to the working poor.
Revamp subsidy programs to make folks better off working in low wage jobs than not working at all.
It’s so frustrating to see other states, but not us, really do some of these things.
BILL CRAWFORD (crawfolk@gmail.com) is a syndicated columnist from Meridian.