Three Pillars: One Opportunity

Male coworkers by shelves of colored inks in print shop

I routinely get asked how we at Empower Mississippi selected our three pillars of focus: education, work, and justice. The truth is pretty simple: the Empower board of directors understands that these three challenges are so interconnected that they represent one significant, life-changing opportunity for prosperity, if lawmakers have the courage to act with boldness. As a lifelong Mississippian who has traveled this state extensively, it is clear to me that these three areas must be addressed together to create the kind of Mississippi that offers opportunity for everyone to flourish. 

 A breakdown of Mississippi’s Labor Force Participation rate is one illustration that demonstrates just how interconnected these three issues are.  

Mississippi leaders recently celebrated a milestone achievement as the state’s unemployment rate reached a historic low of 3.4% in April 2023. While this is great news for Mississippians who want to work, because it means they are finding jobs, it doesn’t tell the whole story of the overall health of the state’s workforce or economy.  

The unemployment rate only measures the number of unemployed people as a percentage of people who are working or looking for work. Another, perhaps more telling measure, is the percentage of people in the state who are working or looking for work. That measure is called the “labor force participation rate”. A higher labor force participation rate, particularly when coupled with a low unemployment rate, typically indicates a healthier economy and is associated with economic growth. 

While Mississippi’s unemployment rate has reached record lows, so too has the state’s labor force participation rate. At 54.4% for March 2023, Mississippi’s labor force participation rate was the lowest it has been in over forty years (excluding the drastic drop associated with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020). Though that number increased slightly to 54.5% in April, the state still ranks last in the country in seasonally adjusted labor force participation rate 

The question is: Why are so many adults in Mississippi not working or even looking for work? 

Mississippi’s State Economist recently released a report titled “A Primer on the Labor Force Participation Rate in Mississippi”, which explores the causes of Mississippi’s historically low labor force participation rate and potential solutions. Among the myriad reasons listed in the report for the state’s low workforce participation rate are low levels of education and high levels of incarceration. 

The report points to Mississippi’s comparatively low level of educational attainment as a key driver for the state’s labor force participation struggles.  

At a rate of 86.5%, only two states (California and Texas) rank lower than Mississippi in percentage of people 25 and older with a high school diploma or higher, and we outpace only West Virginia in percentage of people 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree or higher. The report notes, “higher rates of educational attainment tend to be associated with higher labor force participation.” 

Though the state’s “institutional” population (those in nursing homes, prisons, and other institutions) is not counted for purposes of calculating the labor force participation rate, the State Economist’s report suggests that Mississippi’s high rate of incarceration contributes to the state’s low workforce participation rate. This is because, as the U.S. Congressional Budget Office points out, “people who have been incarcerated are less likely than others to be employed in the future” because “their history of incarceration makes it harder for them to find employment, which reduces their labor force participation.”  

Work is good, it provides purpose and meaning in our lives. It lets us use our God-given talents in productive labor to provide for ourselves, our families, and others. I’m convinced most Mississippians want to work, but to ensure that they have the opportunity, we must look at the most significant barriers to work in our state: education and incarceration. 

At Empower, we envision a Mississippi where every child has access to a high-quality education by allowing parents the freedom to choose the best educational setting for their children and where every adult has the opportunity to work, providing for themselves and their families. We want to ensure that a fresh start is attainable for all citizens, including those who have made mistakes, and that we don’t make it impossible to find meaningful work after prison. 

By addressing the structural flaws in all three of these key areas – education, work, and justice – we can create a more prosperous and opportunity-rich state. We encourage lawmakers and thought leaders across the state to recognize how interconnected these three areas are and work together to repair these broken systems to clear the way for the creation of generational prosperity.