A Portrait of Mississippi: A new report shines light on poverty in the struggling state

A black male born in Mississippi today can expect a shorter life span than the average American in 1960. A black woman in Mississippi earns less today than the typical American in 1960. The overall infant mortality rate for nonwhites in Mississippi is more than 18 per 1,000 births, about the same as Libya and Thailand. Overall, black Mississippians are worse off than other black Americans, ranking second to last on the health and income index (just ahead of Louisiana) but dead last in education.

That's just some of the startling disparities detailed in A Portrait of Mississippi: Mississippi Human Development Report 2009, a new county-by-county assessment that examines disparities by county, race, and gender, using such indicators as life span, earnings, incidence of diabetes, high school completion, crime and birth weight.

The report was produced by the American Human Development Project, a nonprofit established to analyze human development in the United States drawing on an internationally-recognized framework established by the United Nations Human Development Report.

For almost twenty years, the United Nations has used the Human Development Index to examine poorer nations in the areas of health, education and income, but in 2008 American Human Development Project produced The Measure of America, the first-ever study of human development in the United States and the first time the HDI had been used to examine any of the world's eighth wealthiest nations. The report provided a state-by-state analysis using a numerical measure of well-being and opportunity made up of health, education, and income indicators.

A Portrait of Mississippi, the first-ever human development report at the state level, was commissioned by Oxfam American and the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP as a follow-up to the state's extremely low ranking on the national index. While many of the Gulf states have some of the country's lowest levels of educational attainment, income, and life expectancy, Mississippi ranks last in the nation on overall human development.

Among the Mississippi report's findings:
  • Whites in Mississippi today have a human development level comparable to that of the average American circa 1997. African Americans in the state, on average, experience the level of access to choices and opportunities of the average American in 1974--a 23-year gap between the two groups.
  • When geography and race are combined, the gap nearly triples. White Mississippians living in Hinds County have a human development level roughly comparable to that of top-ranked Connecticut. African-Americans living in Pike-Adams have human development level of the average American circa 1960.
  • While the range of earnings for whites in all county groups spans from $22,000 to $38,000, for African Americans, the earnings range is $13,000 to $25,000. In other words, whites who are worst off in the state in terms of income are still better off than the majority of African Americans.
  • The median earnings of African American men, $20,368, are comparable to those of the typical American in 1970. African American women have median earnings of $ 14,915 - less than the earnings of the typical American in 1960.
  • Although whites have higher well-being scores than African Americans in every U.S. state, Mississippi is among the four states with the largest disparities between the two groups. (The others are Louisiana, Nebraska, and Alabama.)
  • Though whites are doing better than African Americans in Mississippi, they are doing less well than whites in other states. On the overall Index, whites in Mississippi rank 48th on the state list. They are 46th in education and are tied for last with West Virginia whites in terms of health. They perform somewhat better on the income index, ranking 40th on the list. A white resident of Washington D.C., which has the country's highest score for whites, lives eight years longer, earns 2.4 times more, and is five times more likely to have a college degree than a white resident of Mississippi.
  • African Americans in Mississippi, on average, are worse off than African Americans in most other states. Of the 39 states with an African American population sufficiently large to be included in this analysis, Mississippi ranks second-to-last on the overall state index as well as on the health index and income index (Louisiana is last) and last on the education index. Compared to an African American from Mississippi, an African American living in Maryland lives four years longer, earns twice as much, and is twice as likely to have a college degree.
  • The average cost per year of keeping an inmate in prison in Mississippi in 2006 was $15,000; the average expenditure per pupil for elementary and junior high school in the state that same year was just over $7,000. Thus the state is spending twice as much per prisoner as it is on education per schoolchild.
  • An African-American baby boy born today in Mississippi can expect to have a lifespan shorter than that of the average American in 1960.
The report recommends calls on lawmakers to push for policy to help the poor -- earned income tax credits, state minimum wages, affordable housing, affordable health care and subsidized child care. The study also calls for improving education (about half the Mississippi males do not graduate on time, and a third of black males over 25 do not have a high school diploma). Better education opportunities for black youth could help curb the high levels of incarceration rates facing black males in the state.