2020 census has a dismal map for Mississippi

Published 7:14 pm Tuesday, June 8, 2021

When Mississippi reported a population decline in the 2020 census, everybody knew the bad news was coming for the state’s rural counties. Even so, a map of the state’s population change during the past decade is disturbing.

According to Mississippi Today, only 17 of the state’s 82 counties gained population during the past decade. The remaining 65, mostly rural and small-town counties, have fewer residents now than they did a decade ago.

The counties that added population fit comfortably into four groups:

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• Suburbs, including Madison and Rankin counties next to Jackson, and DeSoto County south of Memphis. DeSoto County’s 16% population increase was the biggest gain in Mississippi during the 2010s.

• College towns. The counties that are home to Ole Miss and Mississippi State gained residents. Forrest County, home to USM, added only a few people, but booming Lamar County to the west added 14%. Jones County, to the north of Hattiesburg, also reported a small population increase.

• The Tupelo area. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but a Toyota assembly plant opened in 2011 in Union County, which is an industrial development partner with neighboring Lee County and Pontotoc County. Toyota now employs 1,700 people, and those three counties reported population increases between 3% and 8%.

• The Gulf Coast. Mississippi’s three counties bordering the Gulf of Mexico each gained residents during the decade — 11% for Harrison County, 9% for Hancock and 3% for Jackson. More interestingly, the three rural counties directly to the north — Pearl River, Stone and George — also added population. George County was up a surprising 7%.

In the southwest part of the state, all eight counties comprising the McComb-Brookhaven-Natchez trade area lost residents. Lincoln County fared the best with a 2.75% population decline, while Pike County lost 3.57%.

Amite County and Walthall County each lost 7% of their residents during the decade. Lawrence County lost 3.5% and Franklin County lost 5.5%.

The census was even harsher along the Mississippi River, as Adams County lost 7% of its residents and Wilkinson County 15%, the fifth-largest decline in the state.

The rah-rah thing to do here is to predict that Mississippi’s population fortunes will turn soon — that as the economy improves, more people will stick around. But how much does it really help the state if population gains are limited to a few fortunate counties, while the remaining 80% of them struggle to get by?

When an area loses population, a lot of the people who leave are those that are willing to put in the work that leads to better opportunities. They are just the kind of people rural counties need in the effort to compete against larger markets. Their departure is a silent signal that too many of our counties don’t measure up.

Most of Mississippi’s rural counties cannot hope to copy the success stories from the 2020 census. Our rural counties are not in the suburbs. They do not have college towns that get gigantic infusions of state education money and thousands of free-spending students. They are nowhere near the tourism of the Gulf Coast. So they must look elsewhere for solutions.

From the list above, the obvious choice is to look at the Tupelo area, where the Toyota plant opened 10 years ago — and the three counties around it added residents.

Rural counties in Mississippi don’t need massive auto assembly plants to do better. They could rebound with smaller employers — successors to those garment manufacturing plants that once upon a time dotted the state. Counties must move together in this direction.

— The Enterprise Journal, McComb