STARKVILLE — Mississippi is no longer the poorest state in the union. West Virginia holds that distinction by a rather narrow margin.
But regardless of the rank, we struggle against a high rate of poverty and low rates of educational attainment, per capita income, and median household income. We have high rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer, coupled with the lowest rank for health care outcomes. And now introduce into that scary mix a global pandemic.
Endemic poverty in Mississippi always makes our state’s economy — even in relatively good times as in the last seven years — fragile and easily spooked. Prior to COVID-19, Mississippi’s economy was ginning along at levels that could only be considered full employment. Economic development efforts were improving.
Mississippi has — through both self-inflicted choices and natural disasters alike — lived far too close for comfort to constant economic distress and uncertainty over our 202-year history. First there was the Civil War and Reconstruction. Then the Great Flood of 1927 fundamentally changed the state’s economy on the verge of the next economic disaster — the Great Depression.
By 1933, the state’s industrial jobs had declined by 46 percent, and on one day in 1932, one-fourth of the state’s agricultural lands were sold for taxes. There would be other massive floods in 1942 and in 1973. Hurricanes would ravage the Gulf Coast in 1969 (Camille) and again in 2005 (Katrina).
As the 1927 flood was described decades earlier, Katrina in 2005 was tagged as “the greatest natural disaster in American history.” See a pattern here?
In Mississippi, our endemic poverty began during the Civil War and Reconstruction, continued through the Flood of 1927 and the Great Depression and stretched past Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill in 2010. Generational poverty has been part of our state’s story, as has race, violence, discrimination and insularity. And that reality is juxtaposed against the peculiar and bewildering relationships between our people across every sort of socioeconomic and racial divide.
But no prior calamity has the potential to impact Mississippi’s economy and near-term future quite like the COVID-19 pandemic does. A check of the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reflects that job loss and unemployment claims in the wake of the coronavirus are already eclipsing those seen after either Hurricane Katrina or the BP oil spill.
Tens of thousands of Mississippians are seeking unemployment benefits — and that number is rapidly growing. Stable family businesses, particularly in the service industry, are shutting down and regretfully letting their employees go. A lot of doubt and confusion exists about what a recovery from COVID-19 is going to look like and what the duration of it will be.
Mississippi’s nearly 3 million people have a median household income of $43,576. One in five Mississippians live in poverty — the highest percentage in the nation.
In short strokes, Mississippi was poor, unhealthy and had too large a segment of our population uninsured (14 percent) or already on public health care (34 percent) before COVID-19 entered our lives. With a struggling economy, those percentages will surely increase.
Stay home. Stay safe. And remember that as Mississippians, we’ve already faced difficulties in our shared past. That’s part of our DNA. We can do this. But only if we work together.
• Sid Salter is director of the Office of University Relations at Mississippi State University. Contact him at email@example.com.