As you’ve no doubt heard, LeBron James signed a free agent deal last week with the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he spent the first seven years of his career and a short hop away from his hometown of Akron. He famously took “his talents to South Beach” – the Miami Heat – in pursuit of a championship that seemed unreachable with the small-market Cavs. He won two in four years, with two more losses in the Finals.
LeBron’s return wasn’t merely a triumph of competitive bidding (though his $21 million salary didn’t hurt). It has taken on Biblical proportions: a modern-day prodigal son story. A 40-foot billboard of LeBron went up in downtown Cleveland immediately after the announcement.
The whole LeBron saga has gotten me thinking about the idea of homecoming: What responsibilities do we have to our place of birth? How do we reconcile those with the opportunities afforded by more glamorous places?
As a native Mississippian, it’s something that has been on my mind a long time. I’ve had many chances to leave the state, and they’ve been tempting.
I attended college in Mississippi and have spent the past two years teaching high school in the Delta. Now, I see many of my students grappling with the same decision. For them, the economic distress of their communities makes the choice even starker.
A persistent question among teachers is, what happens once we educate our kids well? Is success giving them the ability to leave for places that may give them more individual opportunity? Or is success creating an educated and prosperous society at home?
One prominent perspective is that our job is to give our students the ability to fulfill their individual potential, which in practice means giving them the opportunity to get out. But what of our responsibility to the community and the state? That is, after all, who pays my salary.
My community taught me to use my gifts, whatever they were, to help my area. I believe we have to put people on a path to be visionary about the places that build them.
This debate among Mississippians is not new in the least. Political scientists Jack Bass and Walter DeVries wrote this in their influential 1976 analysis, The Transformation of Southern Politics:
“Mississippi has long been handicapped by the loss of tens of thousands of its brightest and best-educated young people, who escaped to search for opportunity and greater freedom, or left because of conscience, or were driven out. The few really able people who remained or returned exhibit an awareness of the challenge, an almost somber acceptance of the burdens of leadership, an acknowledgement that the change that has already occurred merely provides the basis on which to begin the task of overcoming the state’s dark legacy.”
What I’ve found, after conversations with my friends from around the state and transplants who’ve fallen in love with Mississippi, is many do want make this place a better place to call home. But Mississippi does not offer the same professional, educational, and cultural opportunities that are available in other nearby states.
As Neil White has written at Rethink, it’s ultimately a dilemma of game theory. Each individual’s personal interests point away from what’s in the best interest of the group.
The concentration of skilled workers is the largest determinant of an area’s per capita income. Therefore, the incentives to stay increase as more people stick around. The LeBron analogy actually works well here. Surrounded by All-Stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, LeBron became a more productive player than he was in Cleveland, where his supporting cast was much weaker. Economics work the same way: skilled workers who work alongside other skilled workers become more productive – and thus make more money – than if they were the best-credentialed employee around.
Conversely, the more people who leave, the greater the cost of staying. It’s a problem that requires a collective commitment. Cooperation pays more than competition.
It’s easy to say, “Well, LeBron did it, so can you.” But the realities are that Cleveland could pay LeBron an equivalent salary to Miami or the rest of the league. In addition to one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates, Mississippi’s per capita income is nearly 30 percent less than the national average. And it’s not just that Mississippians are less educated. College grads in Mississippi make $10,000 less than the national average for degree-holders, and between $2,500 and $6,500 less than our neighboring states.
Mississippi is the only state in the South that has experienced persistent outmigration since 2000. In the fastest-growing region in America, more people are leaving than moving in. The Delta has been hit particularly hard.
Maybe LeBron gives us part of the answer. For kids from poor neighborhoods, athletes often become examples of people who “made it out.” LeBron seems to want to position himself as someone who makes sure other kids growing up in Northeast Ohio don’t have to “make it out.” He wants kids there to have the luxury of loving the place they’re from and not having to leave it and never return.
“I feel my calling here goes above basketball,” LeBron wrote in his letter. “I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from.”
People first have to recognize that opportunities do exist in Mississippi. They are right under our noses, which often make them the hardest to see. When I see a vacant building in town, I think, “This would make a great (insert a small business that’d be perfect and the town needs).”
But, of course, a business needs customers and qualified employees. Many small Delta towns can provide neither. Robert Reece, who attends graduate school in North Carolina, recently wrote about his own deliberations about returning to his native Mississippi, specifically his hometown of Leland:
“In Leland the population has decreased by about 60 percent over the last 3 decades, The Delta as a region has lost half of its population since 1940, and Mississippi has one of the worst rates of population growth in the country. These stats have remained constant even as black reverse migration back to the South has increased in recent decades. Mississippi, particularly the Mississippi Delta, continues to carry the stigma of a place that you have to leave to become successful or that you leave once you even smell some type of success. Whether that means going north to Chicago or Memphis, west to Dallas or Houston, or East to Atlanta, the conventional wisdom of the Great Migration era still reigns supreme. And, at least in part, it’s informed by the truth. The state consistently ranks near the bottom of the nation in a variety of crucial categories, from education to healthcare to poverty. But these problems cannot be addressed remotely. Running away from them does nothing. We must be there to help. In this way, the reasons that people leave—part of the reason that I left—, the reasons that people are reluctant to return—part of the reason I debate returning—, are the same reasons why we—I—need to be there and be on the ground.”
Mississippi is a complicated place. In spite of its persistent challenges that can drive people away, this state, unlike any other, implants a deep-rooted connection that sticks to you no matter how far away you go. Those of us who choose to stay might be sacrificing economic potential, but we understand that quality of life extends far beyond dollars and cents. The ability to do good for the area that has given me so much keeps me planted firmly here, bonded by an intangible pull to these people and to this land.
As for Mississippians who have ventured off in search of better fortunes, keep in mind that LeBron’s choice to return to Cleveland was not completely altruistic. He will exercise even more power and will catalyze growth in a dormant area; he will shift from maintainer to creator. Similar opportunities exist in Mississippi for our sons and daughters bold enough to seize them. We will patiently await their homecomings.