Economy cries out for education investment

By CHARLIE SMITH COLUMBIAN-PROGRESS,

Every county in Mississippi saw its average income per person increase in 2018, according to recently released federal data. At first glance that’s further indication of a state economy that is slowly building steam following what has been a long recovery from the Great Recession.

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis published per capita income numbers on Nov. 14 for all of the nation’s 3,113 counties, and 97 percent of counties saw increases in 2018. In Mississippi it was 100 percent as all 82 counties had growth, ranging from a hard-to-believe 68.6 percent in Issaquena County (second place was Quitman County at 7.7 percent) to 1.6 percent in Walthall County.

The state’s per capita income has been nudging upward for the past three years:

·        2016: $35,613

·        2017: $36,375

·        2018: $37,834

That means more money in the pockets of Mississippians, which is good for everyone from consumers to the businesses they buy from to the state and local government agencies funded by tax receipts.

However, lest we overstate the positives of the situation, or give politicians too much room to boast, the state’s economy remains the weakest in the nation by any objective standard.

Mississippi ranks 50th out of 50 states in per capita income, far below the national average of $54,446, and is the only state below $40,000. West Virginia is the next-lowest behind Mississippi at $40,873 followed by New Mexico at $41,609. Regional competitors are routing Mississippi: Louisiana has an average of $46,242, Alabama $42,238, Arkansas $43,233 and Tennessee $46,900.

The state also ranked 49th in income growth. The only state with a lower per capita income growth rate in 2018 than Mississippi’s 4.0 percent was Kentucky at 3.6 percent. That means not only do Mississippians earn less than anyone else in the nation but they’re falling further behind.

All of that shows that the income increases are more a result of coasting off a strong national economy, helped by the Trump income tax cuts, increased federal spending and a booming stock market, than anything that is being done within the state to bolster growth.

Of course, this is nothing new; Mississippi has been last in the nation for generations. And it always will be until the state’s leadership makes a commitment to helping the bottom third of the population who live in poverty climb up to higher levels.

The best way to do that is to invest more in public education. The first step, which most of the state’s leadership is finally coming around on, is to increase teacher pay to help retain quality professionals in public schools.

Then the goal should become fully funding the state’s formula for dividing up money to schools, called MAEP, which has only been done twice since 1997. That’s a generation that’s passed without enough money, by the state’s own standards, for its schools.

Will it take a generation to lift Mississippi’s economy off the bottom? Most likely. But if it’s ever going to happen, it needs to start now with a real commitment to education.

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