Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Mississippi migration (and we’re not talking butterflies)

*First appeared in the Aug. 20 edition of the Laurel Chronicle newspaper

As a region, the South is enjoying faster growth than any other, and politicos are taking note. The increased population growth means more electoral prowess, and whichever party controls this region will have a significant political advantage.

Although the South is typically seen as a safe-haven for Republicans, population growth among these states means more demographic diversity. With more people comes more viewpoints, and that (probably) means the southern color palette will feature various shades of purple. That alone will be interesting to watch.

Smart strategists pay attention to these migration patterns, and politicos don’t have a monopoly on this data market. The relocating of people from one state to another is big business – and big bucks – in the economic development realm.

Mississippi policymakers, here’s some information worth a noodle.

A century ago, 86 percent of Mississippians were born in Mississippi, according to information compiled by The New York Times. In 2012, less than three-fourths – or 72 percent – of residents were born in-state.

“About 60 percent of Mississippi’s domestic population growth since 1980 has been driven by migration from other states, and the share of state residents born in the state has never been lower,” according to The Times.

I’ll rephrase: Never in our state’s history have we seen a larger share of residents who were born outside our borders.

Depending on your perspective, this can be something of a wake-up call. It’s positive that Mississippi’s slow-as-molasses native population growth has been offset, at least to a certain extent, by domestic migration. That’s mighty nice of you folks who have relocated to the Hospitality State.

That being a Mississippian may become less about birthplace and more about residency can be another positive for our little slice of southern heaven. As the Hospitality State, we’ve got a duty – nay, a cultural obligation! – to welcome others into our ranks. We must be practical on issues like immigration, recognizing the economic, cultural, and social impact of those who help sustain the rural nature of Mississippi’s economy. We must likewise recognize that our state economy could use an infusion of top-tier talent – such as college students who wish to study in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics - regardless of where they were born.

Yet even these beliefs won’t be enough to sustain future growth. Migration, whether foreign or domestic, isn’t the sole economic savior we sometimes hear about on television. In fact, we don’t even need to look outside our state to spur an economic revival. But it’ll require that Mississippi do a better job retaining homegrown talent.

For years, we’ve heard about “brain drain,” but only in recent years have I begun to appreciate what this means for the future of our state. Mississippi is a net exporter of college graduates, which means our state’s best and brightest minds tend to leave – or at least, don’t enter the workforce – over time.

The Mississippi Brain Drain Commission characterizes this phenomenon as having a “detrimental effect on Mississippi’s economic development and quality of life,” citing the fact that college grads tend to have children who also graduate college; are less likely to use public sector services; and generate more tax revenues over a more sustained period of time.

In other words, these are the people we should be encouraging, pleading, begging (choose your word) to stay in Mississippi. These are the folks who can contribute to an economic renaissance, yet too many are leaving our borders for surrounding states. The grass is greener, they say.

The political rub, as I see it, is this: The state has made an investment in the education of these Mississippians, and, like a business, we ought to maximize our return-on-investment (ROI). The question is: How do we do that?

Honestly, I’m not sure. My experience with college-age kids is they aren’t enamored by lofty public sector-driven initiatives, nor do they seem to care what some wonk in Jackson thinks about their lifetime goals. “Working and raising a family in Mississippi” is an antiquated notion when you’re 18 and looking to explore the world.

We’ve got to reach them on their own turf, and that starts with a cultural shift in our own thinking. Mississippi isn’t the place it was 50 years ago, and we’re slowly beginning to take pride in ourselves. We are now getting second looks from companies looking for low taxes and skilled workers. We’re getting serious about education reforms, which means a more desirable environment in which to raise a family.

Those of us who have chosen to live and work here have a responsibility to seek out younger minds and encourage them to do the same. It’s like any political campaign in that someone you know and trust is more likely to sway your opinion than someone you see on television.

So let’s focus on our college graduates and send a unified message that Mississippi is a great place to return after they’ve explored the world. And heck, maybe we’ll eventually have to modify that bumper sticker I see everywhere: “American by birth. Mississippian by choice.”

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