Governor Reeves’s statewide stay-at-home order goes into effect today. It is a necessary — and overdue — measure to forestall the spread of the coronavirus that has infected at least 1,300 and killed 26 people in Mississippi. It is also another sign of how much the world has changed in just a few short weeks.

Prior to COVID-19, when we talked about Mississippians staying at home, it was often in the context of the state’s “brain drain” — the persistent outflow of young, educated Mississippians to other states. Outmigration is something I have written and spoken about extensively, and it is still on my mind as we adapt to our new, socially-distant reality.

Last week, the Census Bureau released another year’s worth of population estimates for cities and counties. They showed that nearly 80% of the state’s 82 counties lost more people than they gained between July 2018 and July 2019, a continuation of a downward trend that has taken a toll on Mississippi’s economy and separated us from our neighboring states.

Consider these facts:

  • Since 2010, Mississippi has lost more than 61,000 people through net outmigration. Put them together, and they would make up the state’s 3rd-largest city (behind Jackson and Gulfport) or 12th-largest county (between Lamar and Lowndes).
  • Mississippi’s total population, which takes into account births and deaths, has grown by a mere 8,000 since 2010. The next three slowest-growing states in the Southeast are Arkansas, Louisiana, and Alabama. They have each added at least 100,000 residents over the same period.
  • The state’s population has declined in four of the past five years, including 2019. Mississippi is one of just six states in the country, and the only state in the South, with fewer residents than in 2014.
  • People under 35 are the most likely to move away and the least likely to move in. Since 2010, the decline in the millennial population exceeds 4 percent – the largest per capita loss of any state in the country.
  • Barely half of the graduates of Mississippi’s public universities are working inside the state five years after completion. People who move out of Mississippi are 17 percentage points more likely to have earned higher education than those who remain, and leavers are 14 percentage points more likely to have higher education than people who move to Mississippi from other states.

People usually have good reasons for moving: jobs, education, family. There is nothing inherently wrong with their decision. However, a place that persistently loses more people than it gains can get trapped in a vicious cycle of crumbling infrastructure, underfunded services, shuttered storefronts, and declining home values. Outmigration contributes to each of these problems, and in turn, they cause more people to leave. Sadly, many Mississippians will recognize this pattern in the places where they live, or where they left.

[Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash]

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