Ranking first among the nation’s fifty states is usually a matter of much celebration. But not when the issue is poverty. Mississippi has the highest percentage of residents living below the poverty line. Though the state has made important advances in job creation and expansion, improved education, strengthened the quality of the available health care, and accelerated the adoption of information technologies by public and private sector entities, these positive changes have not translated into substantial declines in Mississippi’s poverty rate. In 2014 21.5 percent of Mississippians remained poor, a figure that represents more than 623,000 people and is significantly higher than the 14.8 percent recorded for the nation as a whole. And poverty rates are much higher among Mississippi’s African American, Latino, and Native American communities than among whites and Asian Americans.
A logical beginning point for the discussion of poverty is to specify the manner in which poverty is measured in the United States. While one could assume that the cost of living in Mississippi would be quite different from that of California or New York, the reality is that the process for determining poverty rates for individuals and households is identical in all forty-eight contiguous states. Poverty thresholds represent the amount of “money income” needed to support families whose members are of different ages and of various sizes. Money income includes earnings, unemployment compensation, workers’ compensation, social security, Supplemental Security Income, public assistance, veterans’ payments, survivor benefits, pension or retirement income, interest, dividends, rents, royalties, income from estates, trusts, educational assistance, alimony, child support, assistance from outside the household, and other miscellaneous sources. It does not include noncash benefits such as food stamps, Medicaid, and housing assistance. Poverty thresholds are set at three times the cost of a minimally adequate diet. Families whose pretax money income falls below the poverty threshold are considered poor. Poverty thresholds represent key pieces of data employed by the US Census Bureau to estimate poverty levels among a variety of populations (such as the elderly, children under eighteen years old, women, or racial/ethnic minorities). Table 1 illustrates 2012 poverty thresholds for families of various sizes.
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Poverty rates can vary significantly when examined by key demographic and geographic factors. Race, age, family structure and composition, educational attainment, and place of residence are important attributes that affect the chances that persons or families will find themselves falling below the poverty line. Table 2 highlights the 2014 poverty rates for demographic groups in Mississippi. As the table illustrates, race clearly plays a role in poverty: African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans are more likely to live in poverty. In addition, children, women, and people who lack high school diplomas also have higher poverty rates.
<insert Poverty Rate table 2>
Area of residence also plays a role in the likelihood of poverty. As table 3 shows, poverty rates for Mississippi counties in 2014 ranged from 9.9 percent (DeSoto County) to 47.9 percent (Jefferson County). Poverty rates are higher in the Delta counties and in the Mississippi River counties south of Vicksburg. Rural counties also have higher poverty rates than metropolitan areas.
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Given the entrenched nature of poverty in Mississippi, finding the right mix of solutions to reduce the number of people and families in poverty poses a daunting challenge. The numerous strategies for alleviating poverty include investing in education, enhancing workforce skills, improving child care and transportation support, diversifying local economies, and developing regional collaboration among local governments.
- Lionel J. Beaulieu, Ferrel Guillory, Sarah Rubin, and Bonnie Teater, Mississippi: A Sense of Urgency, Southern Rural Development Center, Mississippi State University (April 2002)
- Carmen DeNavas-Walt, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2011, Current Population Reports, www.census.gov
- Tracey Farrigan and Timothy Parker, Amber Waves website, http://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves.aspx (5 December 2012)
- Leif Jensen, Rural Realities, vol. 1, issue 1, Rural Sociological Society website, www.ruralsociology.org
- National Poverty Center, “Poverty in the United States: Frequently Asked Questions,” University of Michigan, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy website, www.npc.umich.edu/poverty/
- Talk Poverty website, https://talkpoverty.org/state-year-report/mississippi-2015-report/
- US Census Bureau, American Community Survey website, https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/acs/
- US Department of Health and Human Services, 2012 HHS Poverty Guidelines: One Version of the U.S. Federal Poverty Measure, http://aspe.hhs.gov