HATTIESBURG, Miss. – Republicans around the country proclaim that conservative remedies, such as repealing “Obamacare,” or enacting Paul Ryan’s Medicare-warping, tax-slashing budget plan, will solve the nation’s health care and economic disparities. However, evidence from Mississippi suggests otherwise.
Mississippi is, by many metrics, an extremely conservative state. In fact, according to Gallup, it is the most conservative state in the union. The governor’s and lieutenant governor’s offices, as well as both chambers of the state legislature, are controlled by the GOP. Mississippi, according to a report in the Jackson Progressive, has a very regressive income tax, and has one of the lowest tax burdens in the nation.
The state ranks dead last economically, with the lowest per capita income in the country – $30,399 according to the Census Bureau figures for 2008. Compare that to the national per capita income of $40,208. Additionally, as of 2010, 21.9 percent of Mississippi residents lived below the poverty level, and 10.9 percent were unemployed – much worse than the national rates of about 14 percent and 9 percent respectively.
As the poorest region of the poorest state, the Mississippi Delta illustrates the huge income disparity in the world’s richest nation. The Delta is a rural region composed of 17 agricultural counties in the alluvial flood plain of the Mississippi River. The region is historically considered to be one of the most economically and educationally deprived areas of the nation.
The Delta region is the flagship of poverty in the state. According to the U.S. Census, 20 percent of the region’s population is on food stamps.
The economic problems of the region have been endemic for quite some time. Even back between 2006 and 2008, while the nation had a 6.8 percent unemployment rate, the Delta held at 12 percent unemployment.
Susan Mayfield-Johnson, Ph.D., is the director of the Center for Sustainable Health Outreach at the University of Southern Mississippi, which researches community health in rural Mississippi. Dr. Mayfield-Johnson states that the lack of a viable non-agriculture-based economy in the region has resulted in “stagnant incomes and low-skilled jobs for decades.”
The region also experiences significant barriers in education. Only 61.6 percent of adults in the region have a high school diploma, compared to 80.4 percent nationwide. Adults in Mississippi have the highest rate of low literacy in the nation, with 30 percent scoring as “Level 1” on the National Assessment of Adult Literacy conducted by the U.S. Department of Education in 2003. Level 1 literacy is generally defined as less than fifth-grade reading and comprehension skills.
Mississippi also leads the nation in a number of health care problems. It has the highest rate of heart disease and the second highest rate of diabetes in the country.
According to the Mississippi Department of Health, the prevalence of adult diabetes in the state increased by 70 percent between 1994 and 2006. The department also reports that one in three Mississippians suffer from hypertension.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death among adults in Mississippi, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In fact, one out of every five adults in the state who die under the age of 65 dies from cardiovascular disease. Its prevalence in the state is 33.6 percent higher than in the U.S. as a whole. In the Delta region it is an astonishing 83.5 percent higher.
ABC News reported this month that the five U.S. counties with the lowest life expectancies for women are in the Mississippi Delta. All five counties have life expectancies for women of less than 74 years, which is lower than the nations of Honduras, Peru or El Salvador.
The study that ABC cited also revealed that the five counties with the lowest life expectancies for men are also in Mississippi, and four of them are in the Delta region. The life expectancies for men in these counties are all under 69 years, lower than countries like Brazil or Latvia.
The lack of health care access in the Mississippi Delta is even more staggering and may be a major factor in the health disparities seen in the state. In fact, the Mississippi Department of Health has designated the region as a health professional shortage area.
According to the Delta Health Alliance, a nonprofit organization aimed at improving health in the region, of the 5,000-plus physicians licensed in the state, only 584 are listed in the 17 Delta counties.
In the entire state there are only 16 diabetes and metabolic specialists, and there is only one in the 17-county Delta region. Of the 12 ophthalmologists in the Delta, only one accepts Medicaid. The state health department offers no chronic disease clinics in the region.
In total, there are 21 hospitals that service the region. The majority of them are small, under 20 beds, and limited in the services they deliver. Three Delta counties – Benton, Carroll and Tunica – have no hospital.
Gov. Haley Barbour’s resistance to President Obama’s health care reform adds to the region’s woes. Barbour claims that the state cannot afford to cover more citizens’ health care. “This new law will ultimately force the state to raise taxes, as hundreds of thousands of new people will be added to our Medicaid rolls,” Barbour said.
Contrary to the facts, Barbour has claimed, “There’s nobody in Mississippi who does not have access to health care.” While this is obviously not true (18 percent of the state currently lacks insurance), Barbour has been making the problem worse since he took office in January 2004.
According to the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, Mississippi cut its Medicaid rolls between 2004 and 2008. Barbour has also taken to cutting the health care safety net to balance the state’s budget. He reduced the coverage for 65,000 citizens who qualified for a Poverty-Level Aged and Disability (PLAD) program. The state has also begun requiring unprecedented annual in-person interviews for Medicaid.
Mississippi, dominated by conservative politicians, has health care, income and economic disparities that embody the worst of the nation’s ills. And the Delta is the most extreme example. Overall, conservatism doesn’t seem to be translating into positive results for the Hospitality State.
Photo: A group of boys play baseketball in Tunica, Miss. Tunica, in the Mississippi Delta, is one of the poorest places in the country, and the county is one of three Delta counties that have no hospital. (AP/James Finley)