Mississippi's "Opportunity Index" has improved in the past two years but still ranks near the bottom nationally.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University. Rethink Mississippi has partnered with The Hechinger Report to provide news and analysis about education in Mississippi.
It’s always been hard to get ahead in the largely poor and rural state of Mississippi, where the median household income is the lowest in the U.S.
Yet Magnolia State residents do have slightly more opportunities to become upwardly mobile these days than they had two years — possibly due to lower unemployment rates and more adults pursuing postsecondary education, according to recent results of a national set of data known as the “Opportunity Index.”
The data show that although opportunity on a whole has increased in Mississippi, the state still ranks near the bottom nationally, largely due to low wages and poverty.
Opportunity Nation, a coalition of 250 businesses and organizations across the country, and Measure of America, a project developed by the nonprofit, New York-based Social Science Research Council, compiled data on education, economics, and community factors for over 3,000 counties across the nation. Those factors are thought to expand or restrict upward mobility.
Their research found factors that can hinder social mobility, like the percent of people living in poverty and the median household income, have worsened in the state. In 2013, Mississippi’s median household income was $35,790 – a drop of about $1,500 drop since 2011.
Russell Krumnow, managing director of Opportunity Nation, says that while the cost of living in Mississippi is lower than some states, the median income is still a concern.
“A low median income means a lot of people, even who are working and are getting jobs as we recover from the recession, may be getting low wage jobs that are tough to support a family on,” he said.
Since 2011, Mississippi’s unemployment rate has dropped by about three percent to 8.2 percent. The state’s “safe environment” score improved as the number of violent crimes per 100,000 people dropped, from about 286 in 2011 to 270 in 2013.
The percent of households with access to high-speed Internet, which can assist in applying for jobs and researching and accessing higher education, increased by five percent, to 48.5 percent. And community engagement, or the percent of adults involved in social, civic, sports, and religious groups, increased three percent since 2011, to 41 percent. Both years, that percent was higher than the national average.
Large disparities in opportunity remain, and the highest scoring counties tend to have several positive factors.
Rankin County, just east of Jackson, gained more than three points on the 100-point opportunity scale, and was ranked the third most opportunity-rich county in the state. The county has the lowest unemployment rate of 4.8 percent, and its median household income is nearly $20,000 more than the state average.
In addition, nearly 65 percent of the county’s three and four-year-olds are enrolled in pre-school, and the county has one of the highest ratios of doctors to residents in the entire state.
But even in Rankin County, some factors have hindered upward mobility. The county has seen a rise in the percent of students who are “disconnected,” or out of school and not working. In 2013, more than 15 percent of 18-24 year olds were disconnected, a nearly three percent increase since 2011.
In 2012, the Rankin County schools partnered with a program called Gateway To College to target disconnected youth .The program, which is run out of Hinds Community College, provides alternative routes to graduation for students who have dropped out or who are at risk.
“You would think a school district as successful as Rankin County would not have a need for a program like this,” said Valerie Burton, the director of Gateway to College, adding that even though the district’s graduation rate is high, there is room for improvement. “[The program] shows them that their community cares about them and their school district cares about them. We want to help them.”
In Mississippi’s Delta region, where doctors are scarce and unemployment rates are higher than the rest of the state, upward mobility is often stunted.
For example, Tallahatchie County has one of the lowest median household incomes of $26,000 — and nearly 30 percent of youth ages 16-24 are not in school or working.
In Holmes County, more than 43 percent of residents live in poverty, and the data show the number of grocery stores and produce vendors has decreased since 2011, meaning many residents lack access to healthy foods.
Although the Opportunity Index examines 16 factors that can impact upward mobility, some studies have found additional factors.
A study released earlier this year by a team of researchers from Harvard University and the University of California Berkeley found that areas with economic and racial segregation, and communities with high rates of single parent homes also struggle with upward mobility. Both found a dearth of opportunities in the Southeast region of the U.S.[hr]