This week I heard an amazing fact. Many of the students at Delta State have never lived outside Mississippi. Some have never even left the region. Now that should not be surprising since before moving to the South I’d never lived outside New York State. But my world view was broader which was one of the factors that led me to consider relocating in the first place. The same is not true of the Delta and people who grew up here tend to live in a bubble.
According to the census Bureau the state with the highest percentage of people born in their state of residence is actually Louisiana, with Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania following close behind (“Lifetime Mobility in the United States” pg 3). So the Delta isn’t the only place where people tend to live close to where they grew up. It also is not the only place that lacks a large foreign born population and a significant enough percentage of transplants to counter balance the bubble effect. Still Mississippi is hardly any better with a little under 72 percent of residents being born here. In short people are neither coming nor going but rather remaining in place.
But what separates the Delta from those other areas is the level of poverty in the region. A study reported by the New York Times back in June shows the effect most clearly. You can see how people in the Delta have a higher chance of remaining poor with only three percent of children born in the bottom fifth of the income ladder rising to the top fifth. By contrast, in parts of North Dakota that figure is 10 times higher (Leonhardt). In other words people in this region are born here, stay here, and stay poor as well.
I think those figures are related. When you never leave your birthplace you don’t know any other way of life. If that life is marked by poverty you may not know there is any other way to live and thus cannot strive for something better. Exceptions abound. My parents, for example, have never lived more than fifty miles from New York City and they managed to do quite well for themselves. But the tri-state area is very different. It is incredibly diverse, has an excellent public transit system, and great schools from K -12 all the way through Higher Education. The same is not true of the Delta (notwithstanding Delta State University). It thus stands to reason that born people around here are not as well prepared for life outside the area as those from, say, the Northeast.
It would be foolish of me to try and draw deeper conclusions about this topic without further research. But the numbers do show what I had already suspected. Many people in the Delta are born poor, live poor, and die poor. The reasons are probably more complex than geography. And certainly there are people from this area that have seen the world outside of Mississippi, though my experience has been they are the exception. So the Delta is a complex place. It has its challenges, but also a rich history and a diverse local culture one which will certainly provide fodder for future posts.
- Leonhardt, David. “In Climbing Income Ladder, Location Matters.” New York Times July 22nd, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/22/business/in-climbing-income-ladder-location-matters.html?_r=0 .
- Ren, Ping. Lifetime Mobility in the United States: 2010. American Community Survey Briefs, United States Census Bureau, November 2011. http://www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/acsbr10-07.pdf .