Nearly all of the state’s most powerful elected officials have failed to even acknowledge the problem, let alone offer up solutions. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Emma McRae, a 20-year-old native of Tishomingo, left Mississippi to attend college in Dallas, Texas.

“I needed more growth to go to other colleges than the colleges down the road,” McRae said. “Dallas is an incredible city, and it has incredible opportunities for young people. I just needed to be in a place where my viewpoints would be accepted.”

Kevin Malphurs, a 38-year-old native of Jackson, left Mississippi to find work in Columbus, Ohio.

“We picked Columbus because there are a lot of jobs and major companies there,” Malphurs said. “There are no Fortune 500 companies in Mississippi. If you want to do financial analysis for a Fortune 500 company, then that type of job doesn’t exist in Mississippi, unfortunately.”

Erin Runnels, a 37-year-old native of Laurel, left Mississippi to find better culture and opportunities in Kansas City, Missouri.

“I just felt like I needed more culture. It’s not that Mississippi doesn’t have culture, but the culture is very homogenous,” Runnels said. “In Kansas City, there’s more people like me here, and there’s more opportunities here.”

Every Mississippian knows the problem: Young people, in search of high-quality education, high-paying jobs or more fulfilling lifestyles, have left Mississippi in droves in recent years. 

Thanks to newly released data, Mississippians can now better understand the full scope of the problem: In late April, the U.S. Census Bureau released preliminary 10-year data showing that Mississippi was one of just three U.S. states to lose population over the past 10 years. Only twice before had Mississippi lost residents in a 10-year span: 1920 and 1960.

But since the data was released, nearly all of the state’s most powerful elected officials — the ones responsible for setting agendas and passing policies — have failed to even acknowledge the problem, let alone offer up solutions.

Mississippi Today tried multiple times to get comment about the population decline from the state’s top three policymakers: Gov. Tate Reeves, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Speaker of the House Philip Gunn. Hosemann was the only one to respond.

“Traveling out in the state and talking with citizens, the issues which matter to Mississippians are apparent: good schools, affordable healthcare, secure infrastructure, and jobs and opportunities for our children and grandchildren,” Hosemann said in a statement. “These are the issues we must focus on in Mississippi to keep our young people here and attract new residents to the state.”

READ MORE: Young people are running from Mississippi. We’re digging into it.

Young Mississippians have long been underrepresented in the state’s political system. Of the eight current statewide elected officials, just one is a millennial or younger: State Auditor Shad White, who is 35. A 2019 analysis showed the median age of the state’s 174 lawmakers was 56, about 18 years older than the state median.

The only recent inkling of an organized policy effort came in 2017, when seven of 174 lawmakers under the age of 40 created the Mississippi Future Caucus. That group has not been active in several years, and at least three of the members are no longer in the Legislature (Roun McNeal, who lost his 2019 reelection bid; Robert Foster, who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2019; and Toby Barker, who is now the mayor of Hattiesburg).

Rep. Trey Lamar, the Senatobia Republican who is among the most powerful lawmakers, notably worked to pass a tax credit bill in 2018 aimed at helping keep young people home. The bill passed the House but died in the Senate without consideration.

Some advocates in Mississippi have held a long-standing theory about why state leaders won’t acknowledge the problem: because their own core agendas haven’t been popular or effective enough to attract or retain young people.

“Mississippi’s leaders don’t need to come up with shiny new ideas to stop the brain drain, because the solutions are embedded in the issues that are already front and center: education, healthcare and infrastructure,” said Jake McGraw, the public policy director at the William Winter Institute who has for years compiled data about and studied the effects of the state’s outmigration.

McGraw continued: “We can keep teachers in Mississippi by paying them a competitive salary, keep doctors and nurses by expanding Medicaid and preserving rural hospitals, and keep engineers and contractors by fixing our roads and water systems.”

Mississippi Today, after receiving hundreds of survey responses from young Mississippians since the Census statistics were released last month, reached out to the three respondents quoted at the top of this article who left the state and started their lives elsewhere.

McRae acknowledged pride in “certain components of how she’s been raised,” but she said that even in parts of its neighboring state like Texas, negative associations about Mississippi still surface and “a greater mode of accountability and listening from the state” could debunk common stereotypes and curtail a fleeing young population.

Malphurs, though he left for a bigger market in financial analysis, expressed both care and hope for Mississippi when explaining that the state is “always so close to change.”

Runnels, after experiencing verbal harassment for her beliefs that differed from those she grew up around, said that Mississippi needs a safer, healthier environment for differing viewpoints where “people can talk about what’s important to them.”

While their individual reasons for leaving varied, a common thread linked their answers: Mississippi’s state leadership and political landscape has created an ideological impasse between older and younger Mississippians.

“Ignoring the problem only makes it worse, because each person Mississippi loses leaves a little bit less behind for those of us who remain,” McGraw said.

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Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.

Candace McKenzie, a Raymond native, is Mississippi Today's second Emerging Reporters Fellow. She earned an associate’s degree from Hinds Community College before transferring to Millsaps College, where she will graduate this spring. During her time at Millsaps McKenzie served as editor-in-chief of The Purple and White student newspaper and collaborated with administration, alumni, students, and several others to revive the once non-existent paper to a place of importance on the campus.