Covid was the opening act of what will be a tumultuous decade

In rich countries, this generation of adults is not doing well by its children. They will have to pay off huge public-sector debts. They will be expected to foot colossal bills for their parents’ pension and health costs. They will compete for jobs with people from emerging countries, many of whom have better education systems despite their lower incomes. The least this generation can do for its children is to try its best to improve its state schools. Giving them more independence can do that at no extra cost. Let there be more of it.

-The Economist

Back in 2015 I combed over the Census population age projections by state and forecast trouble ahead in the report Turn and Face the Strain. At any given time, working age people (18-64) are carrying most of the load in terms of generating the economic growth and paying the taxes necessary to sustain the American social welfare state. Young people are mostly consumers of government expenditures in the form of schooling, and people 65 and older are heavy consumers of public health care funding.

Societies with lots of people in their prime earning years and relatively few youth/elderlies tend to enjoy higher levels of economic growth. Think for instance the United States in the 1980s and 1990s when the huge Boomer generation was in their prime earning years, the relatively small Gen X generation was in school and the elderly were smaller in numbers.

When the Baby Boom generation moves into retirement, they stop pushing the cart as prime earning years taxpayers and start riding in the cart as recipients of public spending programs. Just to get a sense of just how profound this change will be, note that retirement destination states such as Arizona and Florida had age dependency ratios of 65 and 63 respectively in 2010. In Florida’s case, you can think of this as 63 young and elderly people riding in the cart for every 100 working-age people pushing the cart. Mississippi’s projected age dependency ratio for 2030 is 77.

The first Baby Boomer drew a Social Security check in 2007. Nationally, approximately 10,000 Boomers will be reaching the age of 65 daily between now and 2030, when all surviving Boomers will have reached the age of 65. The federal government is a major source of funding for state governments and faces gigantic imbalances in the Social Security and Medicare programs. At the state level an aging population drives to increased demand for Medicaid spending, as the elderly are major consumers of such spending. This strain is already visible in the last 20 years of Mississippi budgets.

Over the last two decades, Medicaid and Public Assistance have driven the largest increases in spending, while K-12 and transportation have seen the largest declines in spending as a percentage of the total budget. Note that these declines as percentages of the total budget are not necessarily a bad thing. The outputs from Mississippi’s K-12 system just before the pandemic were night and day better than those seen in the year 2000 for example. Moreover, the National Center for Education Statistics found that the Mississippi student population declined by 4.3% between 2013 and 2018. More on that in a moment.

Now let’s take a look at the Census projections that were available at the time of the report for trends in school-aged and elderly populations in Mississippi:

After the Census Bureau made these projections, a baby bust ensued. The COVID-19 pandemic has started to add on to the baby bust momentum. A survey by the Guttmacher Institute found that one-third of American women polled in late April and early May wanted to delay childbearing or have fewer children because of the pandemic.

While this may relieve some financial pressure in the short run from lower K-12 enrollment but in the medium to long term, it is deeply worrisome. What Mississippi needs more than anything else is highly productive and innovative young people. The next generation must drive the economic growth and policy innovations in order to secure the state’s future.

The people tasked with keeping the lights on in the 2030s and 2040s are sitting in Mississippi classrooms currently. Each and every one of these people who drop out of school or graduate from school functionally illiterate exacerbates already considerable challenges. Every time a productive young adult decides to move to seek their fortunes outside of Mississippi, your future is likewise diminished.

A pluralistic system of education that gives all Mississippians the opportunity to match the needs and interests of their child with the strengths of a school can and has improved outcomes, as The Economist noted, at no additional cost. It can do the same for Mississippi while building upon previous success. This should be an indispensable part of an overall strategy to transform the state into a dynamic society that attracts and keeps young families and innovates through adversity. Future adversity is closing fast-you need to move faster.