Researchers at the University of Wisconsin mapped the net migration rate for every U.S. county from 2000-2010. The purple counties gained more people than they lost, while the orange counties lost more than they gained. The darker the color, the greater the change. What stands out?
Compared to the rest of the South, Mississippi looks as orange as an Oompa-Loompa with a spray tan:
The inability to retain and attract people who have the option to live elsewhere is, and always has been, a defining challenge for Mississippi. The economic potential lost from decades of brain drain is incalculable. Climbing from the bottom of national rankings will require Mississippi to import talent and ideas from outside the state. Migration alone won’t solve all of our problems, but Mississippi cannot become wealthier, healthier, and better educated without it.
Our neighboring states caught on long ago: the South has been the country’s fastest-growing region for much of the past 50 years. Migration to the Sunbelt is typically explained by a combination of warm climate, rising wages, and cheap housing. Mississippi possesses each of these attributes, yet we were just one of two Southeastern states to experience net out-migration over the last decade.* Roughly two-thirds of the Mississippi’s 82 counties lost more people than they gained. A majority saw over 5 percent of their residents move away. Many of these people relocated within the state, though a large proportion left altogether. What gives?
Simply put, Mississippi has too few urban and economic magnets to keep the people we have, much less bring in new ones. More people than ever seek out metropolitan areas for professional and cultural opportunities that rural life cannot offer. Most of the migration in the South clustered around big cities: Nashville, Atlanta, Raleigh, Dallas, Orlando, and Washington, D.C. Notably, all of Mississippi’s purple counties are located within an hour’s drive of Memphis, Jackson, New Orleans, or Mobile. On the flip side, Mississippi’s most isolated counties experienced the highest rate of outmigration.
Unless we invest in the growth of our urban areas, America’s fourth most rural state will continue to lose people. Only 46 percent of Mississippians live in an area with more than 50,000 residents, compared to 85 percent nationally and 75 percent in the Southeast. To put it in perspective, Jackson would only be the fifth-largest city in Alabama.**
Often, who moves in is just as significant as how many. The most successful Southern cities have upgraded their talent pools by catering to highly-educated migrants. Jobs are the primary reason for relocation, but Mississippi’s cities don’t offer many opportunities for skilled workers. Jackson’s economy has more in common with declining Rust Belt cities than dynamic Sunbelt boomtowns. Jackson’s largest employers are government, healthcare, and education — valuable services that create a stable middle class but don’t allow for the productivity growth that attracts waves of new migrants. The expansion of cities such as Raleigh and Huntsville has been fueled by high-paying, innovative STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) industries. Of America’s 100 largest metro areas, Jackson ranks 85th in the share of jobs in STEM fields and 98th in patents per worker. Jackson’s lone high-tech foray into the Fortune 500, Worldcom, imploded spectacularly ten years ago.
As a result, most of the people who move to Mississippi look like the people who are already here. The proportion of newcomers with a college degree (26.8 percent) ranks 48th in the country. The proportion with a graduate degree (10.5 percent) ranks 46th. Their median income ($16,789) comes in 43rd, and share of migrants born overseas (7.4 percent) ranks 47th. Meanwhile, many of the students who earn degrees from Mississippi’s universities leave to take better jobs elsewhere, subsidizing the economies of surrounding states and creating a skills deficit back home.
To change that, we must first figure out what Mississippi’s purple counties are doing right. It is no coincidence that the places attracting newcomers have more in common with regional counterparts than with the rest of the state. DeSoto and Madison counties are indistinguishable from suburban Atlanta or Nashville. The college town of Oxford draws more comparisons to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, or Athens, Georgia, than to nearby Grenada or Batesville. South Mississippi identifies as much with the greater Gulf region as it does with the rest of Mississippi.
These places possess one more common thread: they are home to some of the state’s best public schools. DeSoto Co., Madison Co., Rankin Co., Oxford — these districts routinely fall within the top tier of state rankings. Good schools don’t guarantee a positive migration rate, but each of Mississippi’s purple counties had at least one “A” or “B” rated district last year.
If Mississippi wants to turn from a skills exporter to a skills importer, we should follow the lead of our Southern neighbors and support in the growth of our cities, foster high-skilled STEM industries, and — by any means necessary — improve our public education system. The status quo will only leave us further behind.
*The other, Louisiana, might have been in the black if not for Katrina.
**To be fair, Jackson’s metro population would rank second in Alabama. It is still only half the size of Birmingham’s metro area.