By EMILY W. PETTUS
JACKSON — Stick around the Mississippi Capitol for a while, listen to a few briefings about finances, education levels and health statistics, and see if you can maintain a sunny, optimistic outlook about the state’s economic future.
It’s not easy.
Mississippi has long been one of the poorest states in the union. Barring some miraculously good luck for this state, or a horrible turn of events for others, it’s hard to see the day when Mississippi will sit atop many favorable national rankings.
“Throughout entire decade through the 2000s, the economy really struggled,” state economist Darrin Webb told lawmakers in January. “We think this has to do with our lower human capital. We have less educated people than other states, we have less healthy people than other states, we have a very high rate of unwed motherhood. We think all that plays a role in this.”
He’s not the only one who’s noticed these things, of course. Many of the issues are linked inextricably with poverty in a chicken-and-egg sort of way. Which came first? It’s hard to tell.
Politicians have been saying for generations that they want to improve Mississippi’s education levels. While school officials point out that Mississippi’s standardized test scores have improved in many areas, so have the scores for many other states. Mississippi is chasing a moving target.
The state Department of Health and the Mississippi State Medical Association issued a report in mid-January showing that the state ranks at or near the top of lists for bad health indicators — infant mortality, high blood pressure, tobacco use and obesity. High blood pressure, illnesses from smoking and side effects of obesity can be expensive to treat, and they can hamper people’s productivity.
Before ending his second term as governor in January, Republican Haley Barbour said he thinks the high rate of out-of-wedlock births is the state’s single biggest challenge, because children born in such circumstances often are more likely to live in poverty and are more likely to drop out of school. Republican Phil Bryant, who became governor Jan. 10, has asked the state Department of Human Services and the state Health Department to come up with suggestions to reduce the teenage pregnancy rate. They’re scheduled to report to him by the final week of February.
During the economic briefing in January, Webb said Mississippi has a higher-than-average dependence on government transfer payments as a source of income. The transfers are government payments to individuals through Social Security, disability, welfare or unemployment. In early February, state Treasurer Lynn Fitch told the House Ways and Means Committee that Mississippi is well below its constitutional debt limit, and it has a record of consistently making its monthly debt payments on time. It also has a strong bond rating.
Committee Chairman Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, asked Fitch what Mississippi could do to improve to its bond rating, which would reduce the long-term cost of borrowing money. Fitch said that might be difficult because ratings agencies don’t like to see a high poverty rate.
“They consider our low education level, too,” Fitch said, because that can affect the state’s overall earnings potential.