The abject poverty that exists in the Delta manifests itself in numerous ways. Unemployment is much higher than the national average with 13 of the 17 counties having double digit unemployment rates. Education levels are some of the lowest in the country with high school graduation rates 20% lower than the national average. Delta residents do not have proper access to health care and this affects life expectancy. The average person in the United States lives to be 79 years old but, life expectancy in the delta is 69 years for men and 74 years for women. Teen pregnancy rates for Mississippi are the highest in the nation and the Delta’s rates are the highest in Mississippi. Unfortunately, these bad statistics go on and on.
Mr. Ebersole is correct that in many ways, rural areas of Mississippi resemble third world countries. I recently visited the Dominican Republic and I mentioned to my wife that in many ways it felt like traveling through the Delta: houses in very poor condition, people staring blankly from their porches with no work, farm animals living in the yards, massive disparity between the haves and the have-nots, and churches everywhere.
The article did not, as far as I can tell, promote any facts that were untrue. However, I found the author lacking in his explanation of these conditions. Ryan outlines many of the problems of the state and then says this proves the failure of conservative policies. Unfortunately Ryan does not draw any direct lines between specific policies and specific problems. It seems to me he is relying solely on correlation to suggest causation but, this is a logical fallacy.
Further, in reading comment threads related to Ryan’s article I was astounded at the lack of basic understanding of Mississippi’s culture and history. Many commenters complained about “republican policies” and “republican politicians” causing these problems. I think this is a very modern view of conservative politics. For the majority of Mississippi’s history our politicians have been democrats, very conservative democrats that today are called Blue Dogs. In Mississippi there is no such thing as a progressive or liberal politician. They simply do not get elected.
I think we have to step back and look at the roots of these conservative policies. For me this boils down to three areas: religious dogma, racism, and greed. I will touch on but a few issues involved with each of these roots.
I will start with racism because it is the easiest to explain and the one that most people are familiar with. For the majority of Mississippi’s history there has been systematic racism in the politics. Some of this residue still exists and the Delta’s population, being majority African American, are still being affected. Every aspect of life for minorities in Mississippi is affected by the racist views of our past. The beating down of the entire race for so long has left a psychological impression that has still not worn off.
Unfortunately for the Delta residents the second root cause of conservative policies is greed. In general conservative policies are concerned with supply or money side politics. Conservative politicians are not concerned with poor peoples’ problems unless they affect wealthy people. This is represented strongly by Mississippi’s “right to work” laws that are actually “anti-union” laws. These laws help ensure that wages in Mississippi are some of the lowest in the nation. Further, businesses looking to hire unskilled low wage workers do not need these workers to be educated except to a minimum level. This helps guarantee that the people with money remain in power.
The last platform of conservative roots is religion. It is not a coincidence that Mississippi is at the same time the most conservative state and the most religious state. The two ideas are locked in a positive feedback, circular logic whirlwind of dogma. Religion is behind many of the basic issues in the state.
Consider that the number one religion in the state is Southern Baptist. Now understand that the entire reason that this offshoot of the Baptist church exists is that Southern Baptists used the bible as justification for slavery and racial superiority. A stance that the church did not renounce until 1995, 150 years after the church split from the larger Baptist community.
Religion extends itself into the classroom preventing teachers from teaching any number of things from classic literature to basic science to sex education. To see more about these things, simply search for them on Google, they are easy to find. I will stick here to sex education which a huge majority of Mississippians oppose except for abstinence only education. Further there is an outrage any time the idea of making contraception available to students is mentioned.
It should come as no surprise to find out that Mississippi has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in America. This is a horrible feedback loop where teen mothers do not finish their education. This means that the mother and child are now part of the under-educated poor. The children are more likely to repeat their parents’ mistakes and the cycle continues. The rebuttal to this is usually that Mississippi has the highest level of poor and African Americans in the nation and teen pregnancy is higher in these two categories.
To deepen the problems of this cycle, the religious conservatives in Mississippi make it nearly impossible for a pregnant woman to get an abortion. As I write this article, there is only a single clinic in the state that is performing abortions. It is also illegal to take a minor across state lines to receive an abortion. Finally, if the mother decides to give the baby away, there are only two real options. The most common is that the baby is given to a family member such as a grandparent or an aunt or uncle. Since entire families tend to live in the same general area and financial strata, this tends to not be much of an improvement. The second option is to give the baby up for adoption or safe haven. This adds another child into the foster care system that has proven repeatedly to be unhealthy environments for children.
I have only touched on a few aspects of the religious conservative view point. I hope however, that I have made a valid argument that these views and beliefs are harmful for the state and especially harmful for minorities in the state. Imagine if our policies changed in such a way that pulling people out of poverty and ensuring the best education became the top priorities.