The problems that have long troubled Mississippi seem clear—high poverty rates, jobs that pay less than most American jobs, racial division and distrust, and limited government services, especially in education. While some of these problems have abated and others continue, new and renewed challenges have also arisen.
Mississippi’s small towns and cities have seen an influx of legal and illegal immigrants from South and Central America. These migrant communities, which exist largely in areas where poultry plants and construction jobs dominate, have created Spanish-language churches, grocery stores, and restaurants. Whole neighborhoods, some populated with aging parents whose children left their hometown communities three decades ago or more, are now inundated with Spanish-speakers, creating cultural clashes even though most of the new arrivals rise early, work hard, and build institutions. Mississippi is fast becoming one of the most culturally diverse states in the Deep South, with Latino, Asian, Native American, African American, and Anglo-American populations. This diversity presents both challenges and opportunities in areas such as the arts, health care, housing, public education, and crime.
New residents are adding stress to the state’s already strained health care system. Mississippians face many chronic illnesses, and in many instances, available health care options are poor, particularly for people who lack insurance. Diseases that pose particular problems in Mississippi include diabetes, obesity, hypertension and heart disease, and childhood maladies such as autism and asthma.
In addition, many Mississippians have access only to very poor housing stock. Latinos in particular frequently must live in worn trailers or in houses without electricity and/or indoor bathrooms. Allegations of employer exploitation are also rampant in Latino communities. The new poor and the strivers among them are competing in an economy that has not generated enough well-paying jobs, especially for the unskilled or underskilled.
Child poverty is an integral part of the story for both Mississippi’s old and new poor. In 2014, 33.7 percent of Mississippi’s children were classified as impoverished, the highest rate in the country. And among African Americans and Hispanics, those rates are even higher—50 percent and 45 percent, respectively, in 2013. Moreover, as in much of the nation, inequality in Mississippi is increasing and with it disparities in public educational and health access and unequal educational learning and health outcomes.
Many of today’s college attendees remain underprepared for the rigors of postsecondary education. That lack of preparation begins early in life and persists unless stringent reading programs and family support and discipline work in tandem with competent public school teachers. Mississippi has made some gains in the area of high school dropout rates. Whereas only 63.8 percent of students graduated on time at the end of the 2009–10 school year (the third-lowest rate in the country), that number had risen to 75.0 percent by 2011–12 (ranking the state thirty-seventh in the nation). Nevertheless, much room for improvement remains. In 2013 79 percent of Mississippi’s fourth-graders enrolled in public schools were unable to read at grade level, and 74 percent measured below grade level at math. And once again, those numbers were generally higher for African American children (89 percent for both reading and math) and Hispanic children (84 percent for reading, 73 percent for math). The state faces a persistent challenge in ensuring that children from materially impoverished families receive not only a sound education but also the benefits that can and should come from such an education.
Many of Mississippi’s institutions of higher education, particularly the historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), admit a sizable percentage of intelligent students who do not perform well on standardized tests and who have not mastered their high school curricula. In many cases, however, the schools lack the need-based scholarship funds that would allow students to immerse themselves in their studies and benefit from experiential opportunities such as study abroad and service learning. Consequently, these opportunities are not available to the students who most need them. In addition, many of these students must work while attending college, further complicating their efforts to obtain a quality education. Moreover, as the state’s white colleges and universities have opened their doors to African Americans, competition for talented African American students has increased. In 2001, after twenty-five years of litigation, the state reached a settlement in a class-action lawsuit initiated by Jake Ayers over the inferior education offered at the state’s three HBCUs. The state agreed to spend five hundred million dollars to improve the resources and opportunities available to students choosing to attend Mississippi’s HBCUs. While some improvements have been recorded, overall state appropriations for higher education have declined, increasing the need for colleges and universities to secure external funds. Both greater scrutiny of the use of scarce resources and higher levels of resource allocation are needed to ensure the integrity of all of Mississippi’s institutions of higher education—HBCUs, other four-year colleges, and community/junior colleges.
States cannot be great laboratories for democracy unless all residents are encouraged and helped to prepare themselves for robust citizenship. Reading and thinking are prerequisites for personal and collective decision making that will lead to a healthy and prosperous future. Schools, colleges, universities, parents, communities, and the corporate society must remain alert for ways to jointly facilitate promising ideas and ideals.
Competent and accountable legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government contribute immensely to Mississippi’s public and civic health. The Mississippi Supreme Court has increasingly come under public and attorney scrutiny over questions of transparency and suspicions engendered by the court’s recent tendency to rule against plaintiff claims.
The legislature and governor have locked horns over how to fund a responsible health care program and how best to fund the public education system. State as well as local government agencies often suffer from low levels of funding and sometimes face questions about their racial fairness. In addition, these layers of government must continue to grapple with the challenge of making cooperative federalism work in the areas of national security, responses to disaster, and protecting the general welfare of citizens.
- Center for American Progress, Half in Ten Campaign website, www.talkpoverty.org
- Children’s Defense Fund website, www.childrensdefense.org
- Andrew P. Mullins, Building Consensus: A History of the Passage of the Mississippi Education Reform Act of 1982 (1992)
- National Center for Children in Poverty website, www.nccp.org
- David G. Sansing, Making Haste Slowly: The Troubled History of Higher Education in Mississippi (1990)