February 5, 2013 10:08:05 AM
If a visitor from another planet landed his spaceship in Mississippi and spent some time examining what he found, he would likely be led to ask a question that Mississippians appear to have quit asking long, long ago.
He would observe that our state is almost always last in everything good and first in everything bad and ask the obvious question: How come?
By the end of the day today, our state lawmakers will have finished committee work and the year's batch of legislation will head to the floors of the House and Senate for debate.
But very few of them seem to address the elephant in the living room: Why has our unofficial state motto become "Mississippi: Because Somebody Has To Be Last?"
It is a topic our state leaders don't like to think about and really, really don't like to legislate about. After all, there are so many other things to busy themselves with, like anti-abortion laws, laws that tell the federal government "You're not the boss of me!" and laws that protect the Constitutional right for each citizen to assemble his own arsenal, mainly to protect against a Federal Government that has menaced Mississippi in such ways as providing 58 percent of the state's funding.
Each year, the Legislature cranks out a new batch of laws. The big picture never changes, of course. We are still last and first.
Again, how come?
The answers you are likely to get are many.
Inevitably, there are those who have the same answer for every question concerning things that aren't working right. The short list:
"We took God out of our schools."
"The President is a socialist."
"The national deficit."
Depending on you are mad at, you can make some sort of a case for each explanation. Yet every one of the reasons runs into the brick wall of reason at the same point: Not one of these "reasons" is exclusive to Mississippi. It's not as though Connecticut or Arizona or Ohio are somehow immune to these imagined impediments to health and prosperity that so afflict our state. And yet, Connecticut and Arizona and Ohio are not consistently at the bottom of almost every meaningful list, are they?
Our alien visitor would see through all that nonsense and easily recognize the answer, mainly because he hasn't spent a lifetime becoming desensitized to the question.
"How come Mississippi is at the bottom of the pile?"
"Poverty," he would confidently say.
And he would be right.
Now, nothing makes some people squirm more than the mere mention of the word "poverty." Here at least, any talk of poverty is linked to "programs." Mississippians hate programs because programs are basically viewed as "welfare" and no state hates welfare more than Mississippi.
Well, that's not entirely true. We just don't like welfare being given to poor people, who we generally dismiss as being lazy, morally bankrupt and dependent. In other areas, our view on welfare is a bit more charitable. As we have seen, we raise no objection to the federal government propping up virtually every institution the state. When I hear some state bureaucrat railing about the big-spending federal government, I am reminded of the doctor who made fun of his farmer dad, the same farmer who paid the doctor's way through medical school.
Yes we love to bite the hand that feeds us, for some reason. With a GDP comparable to Bangladesh, Mississippi relies on "big government" more than anybody. Take away those federal dollars and Somalia would be an economic paradise compared to what Mississippi would become.
Of course, rightly attributing Mississippi's misery to poverty leads to another obvious question: What do we do about it?
The two most effective tools are education and jobs.
An educated population is a working population. A working population is not a poverty-stricken population.
During this year's legislative session, lawmakers have made education a high-profile topic. There are bills to expand the state's charter school system and provide some meager funding for pre-K education.
Neither of these are likely to move the bar in a meaningful way, unfortunately. If charter schools and pre-K education are steps in the right direction, it's the first step on a million-mile walk.
Governor Bryant, who is quick to employ his Christian faith to prop up his politics, is fond of quoting scripture when it works to his advantage.
Here's a verse he might think about. "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." That's Matthew 6:21, if you're keeping score at home.
Mississippi ranks 49th in per-pupil spending. Clearly, our heart just ain't in it, for all the lofty talk you hear coming out of Jackson.
If we want to get serious about poverty, we have to get serious about education. We have to fund it like we care about it, even if it means borrowing the money to make it happen, which is something parents do routinely when sending their children to college.
Throwing money at a problem doesn't always solve a problem, fiscal conservatives will tell you.
And that leads to the final question:
"How would we know?"
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.