The South’s population grew faster than any other region from 2018 to 2019, census estimates released last week show, driven by migration from colder, more expensive Northern states.
The region’s population as a group increased 0.8%: Alabama 0.2%, Tennessee 0.8%, Florida, 1.1%, Georgia 1.0% and so on.
What about Mississippi, you ask? Surely in the middle of the nation’s most dynamic area, blessed with seasonable weather, a relatively cheap cost of living and a low-tax environment, we would be expanding like our neighbors, wouldn’t we? Hey, maybe not to be too ambitious, but aren’t we at least holding our own, keeping a steady population?
Alas, it’s not to be. Mississippi was one of 10 states that lost residents between 2018 and 2019, dropping 0.2%. Besides Louisiana, which had the same loss percentage-wise, all of the other states whose population fell were outside the South: New York, Illinois, West Virginia, Connecticut, Hawaii (that’s way too far south to be part of the South), New Jersey, Alaska and Vermont.
Why is Mississippi bucking this positive trend of people wanting to move to the South?
One factor is unavoidable: All of America’s growth right now is in huge urban centers, which Mississippi simply does not have. Cities like Birmingham, Atlanta and Nashville are rapidly expanding, but it’s at the expense of the small towns where young people are leaving for the greater amenities in recreation and shopping that require a large population to sustain.
I’m not sure what Mississippi can do about that. Jackson, well, what can you say? Many people are trying to make it better, but it will be decades, probably longer than my lifetime, for it to dig out of the hole it’s in.
But other factors can be addressed.
Education in the state reminds me of a quote from the great British religious writer G.K. Chesterton: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” The same could be said of funding education in Mississippi: It has not been tried and found ineffective for addressing the state’s problems, but rather found difficult to come up with that much money and so left untried.
In good times and bad, under both Democratic and Republican leadership, the state has not fully funded education, doing so only once in the past two decades. That’s a full generation of students that have passed by without enough money to adequately — by the state’s own definition of what “adequate” is — to run their schools. Who knows what opportunities have been lost as a result.
Yet that’s a correctable problem, if the will existed take it on.
Second, Mississippi’s flag, bearing the Confederate battle emblem, plays into the national stereotype that the state is backwards, still trying to fight the Civil War 155 years after it ended.
That drives away both large corporations, who don’t want a potential PR headache, and educated, progressive young people, the kind who bring new ideas and energy to the places where they live.
Again, that’s fixable, yet politicians hide behind a 2001, non-binding referendum where voters sided with keeping the flag, rather than taking an unpopular but needed stance for what is right, which is what real leaders do.
Surely there are many more things we could list, but mostly they would all reflect a lack of leadership. Until that is corrected, Mississippi will continue its backward slide.
Yet a majority of the state’s voters seem content with that slow and steady decline, opting against gubernatorial candidates in Bill Waller Jr., Robert Foster and Jim Hood who proposed solutions of various kinds in favor of one in Tate Reeves who promised more of the same.
Which reminds me of another saying from a well-known Christian writer from England, in this case C.S. Lewis: “All get what they want; they do not always like it.”
Charlie Smith is editor and publisher of The Columbian-Progress. Reach him at (601) 736-2611 or firstname.lastname@example.org.