The first round of 2020 Census data can be read as nothing but bad news for Mississippi. We were one of only three states to lose population, a fact only compounded by the strong population growth from the rest of the South.
Mississippi saw a loss of .2% – just more than 6,000 residents – which seems almost negligible on face value. But when you look at the rest of the country, it reveals an alarming reality.
The South region of the United States led the nation in population growth with an increase of 10.2% from 2010. The closest comparison to Mississippi – from population, demographic and economic standpoints – would be Arkansas. It saw a population increase of 3.3%, surpassing Mississippi’s population for the first time in more than 100 years.
Over the next several months, there undoubtedly be a lot of analysis over what has led to the drop in our population. Once we receive demographic and local data in August, we will be able to pinpoint the areas that are growing, those that are losing population and what people are leaving.
However, we already know through other research and studies that Mississippi faces an incredible “brain drain” problem. We lose young people who grow up here or go to college here to other states. And we also know the two main issues that lead to brain drain: a lack of high-skilled jobs and a strong population center attractive to young people.
One huge step toward stopping brain drain and the general population loss would be to focus on creating dense population centers filled with opportunities and attractions for young people and families. Look around the South, and there are plenty of success stories: Little Rock, Memphis, Nashville, Montgomery and Baton Rouge, just to name a few.
Mississippi needs a revitalized Jackson to succeed. And it will take more than Jackson leadership to address the decades of problems that afflict our capital city. State leaders need to make it a priority to find ways to assist Jackson leaders with building a stronger, more vibrant downtown and entertainment district.
And we need to look for other opportunities throughout the state to do the same. Two prime areas are the Gulf Coast and Northeast Mississippi. Look at what individual cities have done in these areas, and then consider how regional investments could help attract better jobs, retain young workers and grow our local populations and economy.
Wedge issues and issues that capture the national conscience may win state leaders political points, but it does absolutely nothing to improve the quality of life or the longterm economic outlook for the state.
Let the Census numbers be a lesson. From it, let us build a plan to address real issues. It will take deliberate action, coalitions of diverse people, consistent effort and patience over time. But working together – state, local, business and community leaders – we can write a new narrative for the future of the Magnolia State.