Studio portrait of Sid Salter. (photo by Beth Wynn / © Mississippi State University)

By: Sid Salter

Mississippi is no longer the poorest state in the union. West Virginia holds that distinction by a rather narrow margin.

But regardless the rank, we struggle against a high rate of poverty and low rates of educational attainment, per capita income, and median household income. We have high rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer coupled with the lowest rank for health care outcomes. And now, introduce into that scary mix a global pandemic.

Endemic poverty in Mississippi always makes our state’s economy – even in relatively good times like the last seven years – ‘;fragile and easily spooked. Prior to COVID-19, Mississippi’s economy was ginning along at levels that could only be considered full employment. Economic development efforts were improving.

What is endemic poverty? According to Daniel Farr in the Encyclopedia of World Poverty, the term is defined as “persistent long-term poverty of a particular people or region that may span not just many years but may extend over generations.” That describes my beloved home state.

Mississippi has – through both self-inflicted choices and natural disasters alike – lived far too close for comfort to constant economic distress and uncertainty over our 202-year history. First there was the Civil War and Reconstruction. Then the Great Flood of 1927 flood fundamentally changed the state’s economy on the verge of the next economic disaster — the Great Depression.

With agriculture still struggling to recover after the 1927 flood, the Depression delivered the second consecutive body blow to the state’s economy. At the time, the Great Flood of 1927 was the greatest natural disaster ever to afflict the U.S. and much of the worst of that event took place in Mississippi.

By 1933, the state’s industrial jobs had declined by 46 percent and on one day in 1932, one-fourth of the state’s agricultural lands were sold for taxes. There would be other massive floods in 1942 and in 1973. Hurricanes would ravage the Gulf Coast in 1969 (Camille) and again in 2005 (Katrina).

As the 1927 flood was described decades earlier, Katrina in 2005 was tagged as “the greatest natural disaster in American history.” See a pattern here?

In Mississippi, our endemic poverty began during the Civil War and Reconstruction, continued through the Flood of 1927 and the Great Depression and stretched past Hurricane Katrina and the BP Oil Spill in 2010. Generational poverty has been part of our state’s story, as has race, violence, discrimination, and insularity. And that reality is juxtaposed against the peculiar and bewildering relationships between our people across every sort of socioeconomic and racial divide.

But no prior calamity has the potential to impact Mississippi’s economy and near-term future quite like the COVID-19 pandemic does. A check of the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reflects that job loss and unemployment claims in the wake of the coronavirus are already eclipsing those seen after either Hurricane Katrina or the BP oil spill.

Already, 46,000 Mississippians are seeking unemployment benefits – and that number is rapidly growing. Stable family businesses, particularly in the service industry, are shutting down and regretfully letting their employees go. A lot of doubt and confusion exists about what a recovery from COVID-19 is going to look like and what the duration of it will be.

Mississippi’s 2.976 million people have a median household income of $43,576. One in five Mississippians or 19.8 percent live in poverty — the highest percentage in the nation.

In short strokes, Mississippi was poor, unhealthy, and had too large a segment of our population uninsured (14 percent) or already on public health care (34 percent) before COVID-19 entered our lives. With a struggling economy, those percentages will surely increase.

Stay home. Stay safe. And remember that as Mississippians, we’ve already faced difficulties in our shared past. That’s part of our DNA. We can do this. But only if we work together.