By Darrin Webb
Economics has been called the dismal science and I suppose we economists often live up to the title. For the past few years I have routinely been the bearer of bad news as I have spoken of Mississippi’s struggling economy. To be sure we have seen growth—2017 was the third consecutive year of expansion—a post-recession first. But our growth has been remarkably slower than the rest of the country.
Many seek a quick solution, something we can do that will catapult us off of the bottom once and for all. In my view, there are no quick fixes. If we are to change the trajectory of the state, we have to look beyond the next year or election cycle. Instead, we need to think about the 125 children born each day in Mississippi during the next few decades who will make up the workforce as we approach the half-century mark. What can we do now that will change their outcomes and encourage a brighter future for Mississippi?
The science of early childhood development is remarkably predictive. Children who are nurtured from birth (and before) will grow up to be smarter, more well-adjusted and more successful than children who are not. They will be more capable of adapting to a changing economy and will get along better with others. They make better employees, employers and entrepreneurs. If Mississippi could develop a workforce filled with such people, it would be a game changer for the state.
In Mississippi over 53 percent of children born today will be born to an unwed mother. The national average is a little over 40 percent. In the Delta, there are several counties where the rate is more than 80 percent. My wife was a full time stay-at-home mom. I was an engaged husband and father. Yet the task of caring for three children often left us both exhausted. I can’t imagine the heroic task that lies before a single mom. Just the simple task of reading to a child must seem challenging.
Of course, nurturing a child goes well beyond reading to them. It requires attention to diet, discipline and especially regular interaction. A child will grow with the barest of input from adults. But it takes more than just food, clothing and shelter for a child to thrive and develop into a well-adjusted productive member of society. Ideally, a child grows up in a two-parent loving household in which both parents understand the vital role they play in providing a safe, secure, and stable home.
We often take for granted that everyone grows up in such a home. They do not. Countless children born today will never spend six months in the same location. They will not have a bed, let alone a consistent bedtime. Too often their early life is filled with chaos, anger and abuse. This lack of structure and security will affect their development. The trauma of this kind of home environment will be with them for the rest of their lives. It will impact their decisions in their teen years. It will still be with them when they interview for a job in their 20s and will frequently affect their relationships with their spouse and children. The problem is then perpetuated to the next generation.
We need to encourage marriage. We need to teach parenting skills. And for those children that go to daycare, we need facilities that will partner with parents to nurture the next generation. Such facilities need to be accessible to low income individuals. Providing these things with our limited resources will not be easy. We will have to be innovative. We need church and community involvement. Mostly we need to acknowledge the problem as a serious barrier to economic growth and address it accordingly.