Monday, September 8, 2014

The Starkville Enclave: How a Mississippi Town is Defying Failed GOP Policy

by Nomad

When it comes to searching for good news, Mississippi is probably the last place anybody would think to look. Mississippi has been called- for so many reasons- America's Third World.
However, even in failed state, there are pockets of positive news. You just have to know where to look.

The Showcase of Conservative Policy in Action
Nobody will argue with one thing about Mississippi. The Magnolia State is probably the most conservative state in the country. For decades now it is and has been almost totally under the near absolute control of Republican, from the governor to the chamber of the state legislatures. It is the closet thing America has to a one-party system.

And like a lot of one-party nations, the results are appalling. 
Mississippi should have been a conservative showcase.,, if Republican policy actually worked It should have been the one place where conservatives could have held as a model of success  in order to exalt their brand. 
Yet, of  all of the states, Mississippi is a testament to the failure of conservative policy. 
Need evidence?

In general, the South has long been crippled by the sort of poverty that is handed down from generation to generation. Nine of the top 10 poorest states are found in the South. Some have tried to make the case that the South has never recovered from the Civil War. 

That's possible, but then that was an awfully long ago. Europe was rebuilt in less than a generation, Japan and Russia were both devastated following a war but quickly managed to rise from the ashes. Besides, as every  narrow minded conservative would tell you, you shouldn't constantly blame the past for the present lack of initiative, right? Whose fault is it if you haven't become a success? Right? (Wasn't it conservative Michele Bachmann who said that all cultures were not equal? She wasn't talking about the Southern culture. of course.) 

But, even by the South's own low standards, the situation in Mississippi is a cryin' shame.

Economically of all states, Mississippi  comes in dead last in terms of per capita income. The primary reasons are pretty basic, a lack of  secure employment, decent wages, and healthcare.  

Poorest Area of the Poorest State
The Mississippi Delta region is the poorest area of the poorest state and it is the kind of poverty that should have compassionate legislators working overtime. Unfortunately not so in Mississippi.

Christopher Masingill, joint head of the Delta Regional Authority, a development agency. puts it this way: “You can’t out-poor the Delta." Masingill points out that the people of the Mississippi Delta have a lower life expectancy than in Tanzania; other areas do not yet have proper sanitation. 
And like a Third World, the people of the region have given up hope and many are concentrating their efforts not in building but leaving. 

Since 1940, the region’s population has fallen by almost half. Ask any Third Worlder why they risk (and often losing) their lives coming to Europe or America. It will be the same as answer from those leaving the Delta. It's hopeless to keep trying where there is no opportunity. The system has been built to keep people down.

Professor of Sociology John Green of the University of Mississippi observes that the absence of jobs is only a part of the problem. Even those trained in fields that should provide secure jobs, like nursing, report that they would prefer to leave to a place with better school and more opportunities. 
In some ways, the Delta has been rendered a dead zone. 

Sadly, Republican politicians do not seem overly concerned by the dismal state of things in the Delta. Few of them seem to pay too much attention to the state's problem on the whole.
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With poverty comes all of the diseases of the poor, diseases in which only preventative treatment and chronic disease management- not emergency care  can address.
Mississippi has some of the highest rates of hypertension, diabetes, obesity, asthma and HIV/AIDS in the country. These diseases take an even higher toll on our Mississippi’s communities of color. African Americans with diabetes have a mortality rate 264 percent higher than whites in the same state.
Read that last sentence again. That's not genetics. That, some would say, is slow-mo genocide.

Against the odds, the poorest residents of that state do have access to affordable health care. That comes despite and not because of the Republican  Governor Phil Bryant. Despite the dismal healthcare in Mississippi, Bryant did all that he could to ensure that Obamacare would not succeed.

Had it not been for the federal government, it is clear that affordable healthcare would have been a hopeless dream for the desperate poor of Mississippi. When Governor Bryant refused to allow the Mississippi Division of Medicaid participate in preparing the healthcare exchange, the federal government was forced to step in to build the Mississippi’s exchange.
One source summarized it like this:
When the state’s half-million uninsured residents start gaining more options next year, they’ll have the feds to thank for circumventing their governor.
Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney says because of expensive health conditions and the relatively high cost of health care delivery, Mississippi, residents will pay some of the highest premiums under a federally run health insurance exchange. Costs are expected to fall when federal subsidies and tax breaks are applied for those eligible.

Another reason for the high costs? Limited competition between insurance companies. Frankly stated, the dismal state of the health of most residents is so far below the average that it is simply not a cost-effective business for insurers. 

The governor explains his objections to affordable healthcare like this:
While some people say ObamaCare will come as an economic boost with “free” money, the reality is simple: no money is free.
Since when did the federal government ever give free money without asking for something in return? After all, some people tend to forget the so-called “free” money is actually your money.
The governor himself tends to forget that  this so-called  free money is in fact revenue the government has generated by taxes. It isn't coming from Mississippi which will derive the most benefits.
In any case it is a strange and misleading argument to make. Over the last two decades, the average amount of taxes Mississippi paid to the federal government was $8 billion, yet the average amount of money it received from the federal government was $17 billion. Only when it comes to ensuring that the poor receive adequate healthcare , it seems, do Mississippi Republicans balk.  

The governor's own solution to the healthcare problem?  His answer was to tell the poor to exercise regularly, eat a more healthy diet and take responsibility for their own lifestyles.
He also advised people to quit smoking, avoid hazardous activities, and with a hat-tip to the religious powerholders, he told teenagers to stop getting pregnant.

It's new riff on the blame the victim theme that has always been a feature of conservatives policy. Now the list of things to blame victims has expanded to include: being poor and sick, and being old and being pregnant. 

The message is simple as it is un-Christian: It's your own fault and don't expect anybody to bail you out.

Teen Pregnancy: An Example of the Problem 
According to the governor being pregnant is by default a woman's personal problem. For the most part, men are relieved of much responsibility in the matter. This is a state where many drug stores still keep condoms under lock and key

Meanwhile, as an article in Time reminds us: the governor and legislature have set their sights on closing Mississippi’s lone remaining abortion clinic. Thirty years ago, 14 clinics performed abortions in Mississippi. Today, the conservatives are desperate to close that last one. 

There's no question that teenage pregnancy- meaning, unwanted teen pregnacy- is a serious problem.  The state consistently posts the highest teen birth rate in the entire country. In 2011, 55 of every 1,000 teenage girls in Mississippi gave birth, compared to a low of 16 per 1,000 in New Hampshire. But even when legislators attempt to do something about the problem they are hampered by their own blinding conservative values.   .

When new laws came into effect  requiring public schools to teach sex education, the restrictions written into the law killed the solution at birth.  
For example, under the influence of powerful religious groups, it was mandated that school districts be given the option to choose between several abstinence-only and abstinence-plus curricula approved by the state’s department of education. Health and Human Services found the curricula lacking in fact-based evidence. (A nice way of putting it, isn't it?)
Several peer-reviewed studies have found that comprehensive sex education is more effective at reducing teen pregnancy rates than abstinence-only approaches. One 2008 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, for instance, reported that teenagers who received a thorough sex education were significantly less likely to become pregnant than those who received no sex education. The study, which controlled for such factors as income and family structure, found no similar effect for abstinence-only education.
But adopting the abstinence did succeed in one thing. It made conservative Christians breath a sigh of religious relief that children weren't learning about sex in too specific detail. 
"Just don't do it" was the only message the young people needed to hear. In their view, sex education was the snake in the Garden of Eden, tempting the innocent into sin.
The result of this approach?

A report, produced by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), noted that kids in Mississippi are actually having sex earlier and more frequently than the national average. (And that means of course, they are being exposed to STDs earlier too.)Predictably, they’re also much less likely to know how to avoid unintended pregnancies. 
In the end, the entire effort was a flop.

Whether leaders in the state wish to admit or not, ignorance doesn't protect anybody and it certainly doesn't prevent unwanted pregnancy. Denial doesn't solve problems. It becomes the problem. and that problem becomes the hallmark of a failed policy.

Nevertheless some people were quite please how things turned out. In Mississippi, a lot of time is spent on keeping puritanical Right wing Christian organizations appeased and flattered.

Religion's Role in Mississippi's Failure
There's a good reasons for that. Mississippi is a perfect example of what can occur when there's no separation of Church and State. A new Gallup Poll confirms what most people suspected: Mississippi is the most religious state in America with 61% of its population falling into the category of "very religious." That category signifies that an individual attends religious services either every week, or almost every week and with identifying religion as being an important part of their daily lives.

Christian charity and a faith that emphasizes helping those in need should- in theory- be having a remedial effect. Yet. liberal critics point out, religion plays its own role in keeping the status quo, much to the determent of the poor.
The corporate elite and their political appointees have convinced tens of millions of Americans that a vote for the Ten Commandments is more important to a Christian’s needs than a vote against cuts in education spending, food stamp reductions, the elimination of school lunches and the abolition of healthcare programs.
According to critics on the left, social wedge issues like same-sex marriage and abortion, are used by the Right to drive low-information, low income voters, like unquestioning cattle, to the polls. The call to "take back the country" from gays and socialists and atheists and the so-called liberal agenda might bring in the voters but it doesn't bring any changes.
The Right’s passion for these social issues often makes them the loudest in these debates, and the sheer volume, which is amplified through the right-wing echo chambers, makes progressives limit themselves.
Using the hot-button issue to rouse the voters, politicians are then able to carry on making the rich a little richer and the poor a little more desperate and finishing off what's left of a region in decline.   

Given that emphasis on religion as the cure-all, it should come as no surprise that Mississippi doesn't allow the marriage licenses to issued to same sex couples. 
By law and by state constitution, the state prohibits the recognition of all same sex marriages (as well as any other same-sex legal partnerships). 
In late 2004, after a voter referendum,  the state legislature approved of a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and woman. (Similar discriminatory laws have already been drafted and dropped in Oklahoma and Arizona.)

Protecting Discrimination
The list of problems that Mississippi politicans simply refuse to deal with in a serious way is pretty limitless. But what is more depressing are the things that excite their interests.

Governor Bryant and the Republican legislators, for instance. turned their attention to protecting religious freedom.  In April this year, Bryant signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act which offers a legal shield for discrimination for religious leaders if they verbally condemn the lifestyle or actions of LGBT persons. 
Under the new law, businesses could reject service to an openly gay person on religious grounds. Critics to the law point out that this legislation not only doesn't protect gay citizens from outright discrimination,  it actually protects those who could be accused of discriminating.  

The effect of the law, critics charge, is not protect anybody's religious freedom but to legally sanction prejudice against minorities. From now on, if a store owner decides not to serve you because you are  gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender,African-American, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, disabled or a woman   he can do so without the slightest fear of a civil suit. As long as he hides his prejudice behind his religious values.

A site raising awareness against this new law puts it this way:
Though masked in the cloak of religious freedom, this law is an open license for any business, if they chose to do so, to discriminate against any individual that does not meet their criteria. Thus, gender, disabilities, race, sexual preference, Atheism and other non Christian beliefs,...can be the basis for refusing you service.
Ironically this is the same religion that preaches:
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
And tells its devout to shun discrimination:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
 The very same religion that demands from its followers one thing:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another:just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.

Giving his own stamp of approval for the bill was anti-gay leader Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. He  and other Baptist lobbyists stood beside legislators at the  signing ceremony which was not open to the public. 

Yet, in all that gloom, there is reason to hope. Even as Jim Crows laws are making their return engagement, there are signs of a mini-rebellion going on.  In June, Jackson,  Mississippi's largest city and state capital,  passed a resolution affirming equality for all citizens, including the LGBT community.
Some in Jackson were asking what took so long. 

A month before that, the towns of Waveland  and Bay St. Louis followed in the path taken by the towns of Greenville, Magnolia,  Oxford and Hattiesburg. All of them were instituting policies counter to the state-wide law.

Tracing that back to the original town that drafted and passed anti-discrimination laws protecting minorities, we find it all began in the town of Starkville, Mississippi.

Wiseman in Starkville
Last week another glimmer of good news came from Starkville, Mississippi, the home of  the state's largest university, Mississippi State University. And that makes Starkville a special place to live.

For example, the median age in town was just 25 years old.  Millennials typically vote heavily Democratic (or independent) and support more liberal views on many political and social issues, ranging from a belief in an activist government to support for same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization. 

Nobody should be too greatly shocked when the Democratic mayor of the Mississippi town Parker Wiseman  announced last week that from now on its LGBT city employees will be eligible for domestic partner benefits. 
Wiseman's actions mark the first time in the state's history such benefits will be funded with tax dollars. Wiseman will become the first mayor in the entire state to  publicly support equal protection for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBT advocacy group. these beenfits will include medical compensation. HRC Mississippi Director Rob Hill told reporters:
"Loving LGBT couples should have equal access to medical care, and we applaud the Mayor and the Board of Aldermen for their leadership on this critical issue."
Whether, like the anti-discrimination laws, Starkville will become the leader to overturnbad policy remains to be seen. It's easy to underestimate the power the Christian majority has over Mississippi politics.

Wiseman has been mayor of Starkville since 2009. In addition to being mayor, Parker is a licensed attorney, a certified municipal officer, and a member of the Mississippi Municipal League Board of Directors. 
As a Democratic politician in a state were Republicans dominate all things, Wiseman has provided an enviable model for a lot of small town mayors. He has managed to maintain budget surpluses while keeping the municipal tax rates the lowest in Mississippi. The city has exceeded its targets for infrastructure improvements.
Due to its steady population growth Starkville became the largest city in the Golden Triangle region (a "triangle" is formed by the cities of ColumbusStarkville, and West Point) for the first time ever in 2010.
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It wouldn't be the first time Mayor Wiseman attempted to offer the residents of the conservative state an alternative vision.  

In a rebuttal to the Governor's state of the state speech in January,  Wiseman talked about the needs that the Republicans have long ignored. The list was long and could have been longer had Wiseman had more time.

Wiseman cited the need to invest in education, the need to ensure Mississippi's hospitals don't lose federal funding  and the need to improve Mississippi's transportation infrastructure and the need to protect the Public Employees Retirement System.  So many things that need immediate attention and yet time is being wasted on finding new ways to please the politically-powerful Christian right wing.
Wiseman said:
These are problems that need solving. But year after year, Republican leaders in our State Capitol spend far more time grandstanding than solving real problems. This is unacceptable."
It's about time somebody- anybody- in Mississippi shamed the legislators for their lack of intelligence, compassion and leadership. It's about time somebody tried to pull the state out of its Third World status.