Poor in Mississippi: report outlines gains, losses, continued needs

BILOXI – A newly released report by the Jesuit Social Research Institute (JSRI) at Loyola University in New Orleans paints a bleak picture of education, job opportunities and taxes in the Magnolia State, but the State of Working in Mississippi does offer recommendations for improvements, especially where it pertains to the most vulnerable in the state.
“The study, which we release today, the State of Working Mississippi 2016, is made possible through a generous grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, as part of its focus and concern for poor and vulnerable families in Mississippi and elsewhere,” said Father Fred Kammer, SJ, executive director of the JSRI, during a Thursday. Sept. 8, press conference at the Biloxi headquarters of the Steps Coalition, a social justice coalition founded after Hurricane Katrina, which organizes its work under five pillars: economic justice, environmental justice, affordable housing, preservation of historic neighborhoods and human rights.
JSRI was founded in 2007 as a partnership between Loyola University and the Jesuits of the Southern Province. Bishop Roger Morin of the Diocese of Biloxi serves on the institute’s advisory board and was present for the unveiling of the report.
This is the first time the JSRI has released such a report. The Economic Policy Institute of Washington D.C., Hope Policy Institute of Jackson, the Women’s Foundation of Mississippi and the Mississippi Center for Justice assisted in compiling data for the report and fashioning its policy recommendations.
“Earlier this week, on Labor Day, we celebrated workers and working families. Working families need to achieve economic security, meaning they earn enough to pay for basic living expenses, while saving enough to pay for larger and longer-term costs,” said Father Kammer. “Increasingly in the United States, though, workers and their families are not able to achieve this security, especially minority households. This pattern is particularly prevalent in Mississippi. Moreover, the impacts are disproportionate across racial lines and place the heaviest burden on the state’s most vulnerable people. As a social justice research and action group, JSRI aims to spotlight the issues in hopes that our civic, political and business leaders, as well as advocates, non-profits, volunteers and residents, can help both to relieve stress and reverse this troubling trend,” he added.
Father Kammer highlighted four disturbing trends adversely affecting Mississippi’s labor force.
Compensation for workers in Mississippi has not kept pace with increases in corporate profits or worker productivity.
Growing income inequality has left low and middle class workers in Mississippi without wage increase since the Great Recession, while the highest income workers have enjoyed significant growth in wages.
Mississippi’s relatively low investment in public education has negative impacts on the state’s economy as a whole and places low income children at a disadvantage compared to higher income children whose families can afford private education.
White and African American workers have nearly the same rate of participation in the labor force, but there are large racial disparities in wages and total household income.
“There are many other facts and factors contained in this report, but the negative elements of this picture presented here could be overwhelming for many of us,” Father Kammer said. “However, there’s much more that can be done to improve the state of working in Mississippi and, with it, the overall well-being of all Mississippians. Our report specifically discusses many ways policy makers, employers and all of us can work together to change the situation of workers and working families.”
Father Kammer pointed to five ways this can this be achieved:
Increase state revenues without increasing the tax burden on the poor.
Raise the minimum wage.
Expand Medicaid for working poor families.
Invest more in Mississippi Public Education from Pre-K to higher ed.
Establish a State Earned Income Tax Credit to make work pay.
Charles Graham, coordinator for Catholic Day at the Capitol (CDC) for Catholic Charities of Jackson, said the report mirrors the discussions of the Poverty Task Force, which founded and organizes CDC every year. “All our legislators need to read this report. It addressed the first two tenants of Catholic Social Teaching, dignity of the human person and the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable,” he said.
The task force has identified tax reform and its impact on the state budget as the most critical and pressing issue of this legislative session. Information about the 2017 event should be released soon.
Jeanie Donovan, economic policy specialist for JSRI, said, “Economic insecurity leads to an array of economic challenges, including housing instability, food insecurity, poor health outcomes and a lack of assets.”
“If Mississippi does not take action to improve the educational outcomes and economic status of its working class, it will struggle to attract new and innovative businesses to the state and will continue to fall to the bottom of various socioeconomic rankings,” she said.
To see the full report, visit http://www.loyno.edu/jsri/