Gov. Tate Reeves greets supporters before signing qualifying paperwork to run for reelection at the Mississippi Republican Headquarters in Jackson on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Gov. Tate Reeves proudly proclaims in a campaign advertisement that “more of our people are working in Mississippi than ever before.” 

That statement running on local television stations would be true for most states, but not necessarily so for Mississippi, according to at least one set of statistics compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Based on one jobs report produced by BLS, the federal agency that tracks employment data, Mississippi reached a high-water mark for jobs in May 2000 with 1,243,022 people employed. In May 2023, the state had 1,206,804 people working, about 5,000 fewer than a month earlier — though those latest two months of jobs numbers are subject to revision. 

Based on another jobs report compiled by BLS using different data, the governor is correct when he says more people are working than ever before. According to that data, Mississippi reached an all-time employment level high of 1,178,700 jobs in May, up about 300 jobs from April. 

The difference in reports depends on varying models used by BLS researchers. The unemployment rate released each month is developed using data from the Current Population Survey and does not count people working multiple jobs, but does count self-employed workers, workers on leave, agriculture workers and others. 

In the other BLS model, though, if a person is working two jobs, it counts both jobs in the total. But the model, the Current Employment Statistics, does not count self-employed workers, workers on leave, agriculture workers and others.

But even using the non-farm data that shows the state currently at its peak employment numbers, Mississippi still ranks 50th in jobs growth since 2000, based on information compiled by Arizona State University’s Seidman Research Institute. 

At any rate, using various metrics, Mississippi has not exceeded the jobs growth of the rest of the nation since the COVID-19 pandemic. The United States regained all the jobs lost during the pandemic in July 2022. Mississippi already was losing jobs by the time the pandemic hit in early 2020. The state hit a high mark in non-farm payroll in November 2019 with 1,170,900 jobs and did not surpass that number again until September 2022. 

According to BLS, using the non-farm category, Mississippi added 16,600 jobs from May 2022 to May 2023, or a 1.4% increase. That placed Mississippi among the bottom eight states in terms of jobs growth. 

Rhode Island was the only state that had more jobs in May 2022 than a year later, according to BLS, using the non-farm, payroll data. 

Without a doubt, the health of the Mississippi economy will be a major issue during this year’s gubernatorial campaign between the incumbent Republican Reeves and Democratic challenger Brandon Presley. And numbers can be manipulated to prove various arguments. 

“Mississippi is open for business and our state is growing stronger every day. This is Mississippi’s time,” the governor said on social media. 

But Presley has said, “Mississippi is at the bottom of the nation for economic growth.”. 

Who is right? That will be much discussed before Mississippians go to the polls in November. 

Reeves is celebrating the fact that Mississippi has a historically low 3.2% unemployment rate for the month of May and highlighting three consecutive months the state had set records for lowest unemployment rates. 

The national unemployment rate was 3.7% in May — the highest since October 2020. But the national unemployment rate for multiple months is still historically low for the modern era. The lowest on record of 2.5% occurred in 1953.

The unemployment rate reflects the number of people looking for a job. 

Many believe the labor force participation rate, which reflects the number of people eligible to work who are employed, is a more accurate reflection of economic well-being. 

Mississippi continues to trail the nation in the labor force participation rate. Mississippi’s and West Virginia’s seasonally adjusted labor force participation rates of 54.6% in May were the lowest in the nation. The national average for May was 62.6% — the highest since before the pandemic. 

Mississippi’s best labor force participation rate in the modern era of 62.8% occurred in early 2000, when the state hit its zenith in terms of employment, according to at least one Bureau of Labor Statistics measurement category.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.