Region needs a reality jolt on our status

If you’ve lived in Mississippi for any length of time, you’ve no doubt grown weary of hearing our long list of lasts. Last in educational attainment and performance. Last in health. Last in per capita income.
These are just a few of the most critical indicators. The list goes on, more or less indefinitely, in a litany of inter-related deficiencies.
Where we are first or in the top tier of states, it’s usually in a negative indicator – poverty, teen pregnancy, incarceration rate, among others.
Yes, Mississippi is first or near the top in good things as well – the kindness, generosity and religiosity of its people, in both measurable and intangible ways, for example – and we have many individual and institutional achievements to be proud of. But when it comes to the social, educational and economic indicators that define our capacity to meet current and future challenges, we rank – seemingly intractably – at the bottom of the states.
We may be tired of hearing it, but we deceive ourselves if we deny its significance.
On the other hand, if you’ve lived in Northeast Mississippi very long you’ve probably become accustomed to hearing about how we’re not like the rest of Mississippi, that as a whole we’re better educated and more prosperous than our fellow Mississippians. Unfortunately, that’s a myth – at least beyond a few pockets in the region. Thursday’s State of the Region meeting brought that home again with greater force than ever.
Consider that Mississippi’s per capita income in 2007 was $29,040, or 75 percent of the national average. Northeast Mississippi’s was $26,022, or 69 percent.
Nationally, 84 percent of adults graduated from high school. In Mississippi, it’s 78 percent. In Northeast Mississippi, 69 percent.
Our state ranks low, and our region is lower than the state in these and other critical areas.
Only two of Northeast Mississippi’s 16 counties – Lee and Lafayette – rank ahead of the state average in per capita income, and without those two, the regional average would be well below where it is. At $31,187 (Lee) and $32,470 (Lafayette), these two counties are well ahead of the others at around 80 percent of the national average.
But Lee County in particular doesn’t exist in isolation. It’s highly dependent on the work skills and income levels of people in the surrounding counties for the labor force and customer market its traditionally strong industrial, retail and service sectors need. Low educational attainment in the region, which translates into low-level work skills, which means lowered earning capacity, is a huge challenge for the future for even the relatively well-off counties like Lee.
And even Lee County is undergoing an economic transformation that will require higher skill levels to compete. Over the last five years, Lee County had a slight net gain in total employment, but it lost 25 percent of its manufacturing jobs.
In short, satisfaction about this region and how we’re doing compared with the rest of Mississippi is no longer justified, if it ever was. And even if we were doing as well or better than the rest of the state, we’d still be behind most of the rest of the country.
Which brings us back to education. Not enough people in Northeast Mississippi have enough of it. Everything related to economic improvement – and that per capita income figure that represents the lives and hopes of real people and families – comes down, ultimately, to raising educational attainment levels.
We usually think of ourselves as a region that values education. The statistics don’t bear it out. That’s painful to admit, as the State of the Region speakers all acknowledged, but doing so is the first step toward change.
Keeping children in school begins well before they get to kindergarten, and high school is way too late to begin preventing dropouts. Expecting more of our schools and understanding that they can’t do it without the resources and the full commitment of communities must permeate our culture. Continuing the dropout prevention and recovery initiatives and the higher-education incentives that have been started and increasing them exponentially is essential.
Northeast Mississippi leaders have a record of believing in and acting on the power of positive change. That long list of lasts won’t get short overnight, but it will only get longer if we accept the status quo.
If this region really values education, now more than ever is the time to show it.
Lloyd Gray is editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at 678-1579 or

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