Mississippi brain drain panel
University of Mississippi student Savannah Smith, far left, interviews panelists at the Overby Center on campus.

OXFORD — In four years, from 2011 to 2015, Mississippi lost $1.5 billion in total income through outmigration of its residents.

In the six years from 2010 to 2016, the state lost 35,013 people — about the population of Tupelo. Mississippi is the only state in the nation that’s losing this many people at this fast of a rate.

Though these statistics — commonly referred to as Mississippi’s “Brain Drain” — have been brought more fully into the public arena by Rethink Mississippi’s Jake McGraw, less talked about is the qualitative motivations behind them.

“Brain drain and migration is something that is not just a quantitative question. It’s one that gets at the very heart of choices we make as human beings,” McGraw said at a public discussion on the topic.

On Tuesday evening at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics at the University of Mississippi, senior honors student Savannah Smith joined McGraw and six student panelists to discuss her thesis, which delves into why Mississippians are leaving the state.

Smith, from Corinth, noted that she always has considered leaving the state, which in part led to her research.

Savannah Smith
Savannah Smith

“I think it’s something that is far larger than an economic issue in the state. I think it’s very easy to point at jobs and say this is why we don’t have jobs here, but I think it’s much more of a domino effect and I think that goes back to the policies that we make in our Legislature that goes back to the social culture that we have in the state. I think that’s what I really tried to find in my research,” Smith said.

Tuesday evening, she interviewed the six panelists, all Mississippians in their early 20s, asking if they plan to stay in the state, their reasons for staying or leaving, and possible solutions for closing the pipeline of talent that takes people from this state to others.  

Two of the six said they plan to stay after graduating from college.

“I tried really hard to stay in state of Mississippi,” said Brady Ruffin, a panelist from Clinton who is moving to Little Rock to pursue a master’s degree. “I really looked at things to do, jobs to apply for. After looking through my options I realized there aren’t that many. …  I’m not going too far, but I am leaving the state, and I think it’s a result of a lack of opportunities.”

Another panelist said part of the reason he’s leaving is a sense of close-mindedness that her perceives permeates Mississippi.

“When we try to move forward and try to be progressive and not regressive, there’s a lot of backlash,” said Terrence Johnson, a native Mississippian. “I wanted to be in a place that welcomes dialogue.”

Those who are staying said they feel a sense of duty.  

“I don’t necessarily think that’s a good argument for staying or that people should feel indebted to stay here,” said Alexis Smith from Picayune, who will enter into Mississippi Teacher Corps after graduating college.

While the brain drain has been documented through data from the U.S. Census, the IRS and other government agencies, some state leaders deny the phenomenon. Most notably, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves has stated that he believes the data to be exaggerated.

“It’s a bit discouraging (when state leaders deny the data) because I’ve talked to so many of my peers who are leaving and that I know want to have the opportunities that Mississippi doesn’t offer,” Smith said. “I’ve seen the quantitative and the qualitative data surrounding that. … I hope that we’ll be on the same page about it being a problem moving forward.”

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Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she worked as a Mississippi Delta-based reporter covering education and intersecting issues. Kelsey has a dual degree in journalism and Spanish from Auburn University and worked as an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and a courts reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report and is a co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.