Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Mississippi

It has been almost forty years since I last lived in Mississippi, but, in a sense, it will always be "home" because I grew up there. My parents are dead now, but I still have other family there, as well as friends that I grew up with, and so I retain an interest in what happens there. When I see a story in the news with the name of that state in the headline, I tend to pay attention and read it. So it was that when I recently came across this story in The Daily Beast, of course I had to read it.

The thing is, when I see these stories about Mississippi, they are almost always bad news. This one was no exception. The first paragraph pointed out some of the appalling statistics about the state:

  • It has the nation's highest poverty rate.
  • It has the second-highest teen pregnancy rate and the highest teen birth rate.
  • Its schools rank 48th out of the 50 states.
  • It ranks second among states (to Louisiana) in the percentage of its citizens that it locks up.
  • Its infancy mortality rate is the highest in the nation at 9.67 deaths per 1,000 live births, which is close to Botswana's rate.
  • Life expectancy is the lowest in the country and is lower than in Guatemala and Pakistan.
  • Few states invest less in public education or public health.
  • It is one of the worst states for women's rights and has never sent a woman to Congress.
In short, if Mississippi were a country, it would be considered part of the Third World and a particularly backward part of that world at that.

There seems little hope that any of this will change for the better in the short term. Mississippi is dominated by arch conservatives, all men of course, in its government and they are perfectly happy with the status quo since it gives them all the power and they are determined to hold the line against change. Such men are typified by their governor, Phil Bryant, who in a recently well-publicized comment, laid the blame for America's educational woes squarely in the laps of working mothers. Mediocrity, he opined, can be traced directly to moms in the workplace.

Mississippi has been in the news over the past year because it has tried to close all abortion clinics in the state and deny access to this health care for its women. It currently has only one such clinic remaining, in the state capital of Jackson, that is waging a battle in the courts to stay open. 

Its latest approach in dealing with issues of pregnancy, specifically teen pregnancy, is to collect cord blood from babies born to girls under 16, with a view to using DNA to establish the fathers and then prosecuting for statutory rape older men who have impregnated teenagers. One has to admit it is a novel approach.

There is, however, a possibility that the law could be turned against the girls themselves if drugs are found in the cord blood. Currently in the state, two women who suffered stillbirths are being prosecuted under the state's murder statutes because they had drugs in their system at the time of the births.

The idea that a state could more profitably address the issue of teen pregnancies, as well as decreasing the need for abortions, through sex education and freer access to contraceptives seems a totally alien idea to the people who maintain their iron grip on Mississippi's government.  

All of this is appalling and depressing, and yet when you meet the people of the state on a personal level, they are friendly and welcoming and just want to live their lives in peace and see better futures for their children - just like all of us. What they need is a leader, someone to inspire them to strive for a more compassionate government and to dare to break the chains of dogma that make them slaves to an unsavory history. Those of us who care for the state and its people and watch from the outside as it continues to be bound to its past can only hope that such a leader will find his or her way to the forefront and that Mississippi can soon join the majority of the states in the 21st century.  

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And speaking of Mississippi, that's where I'll be for the next several days, visiting friends and family there. While I'm on the road, I may or may not have an opportunity to post here, but I will return before the Summer Solstice. 

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