McRae: We Must See Rural Mississippi

By Treasurer David McRae

More than half of Mississippi’s population calls a rural community home. In fact, of the Magnolia State’s 82 counties, 65 are deemed rural. That’s something we need to hold onto.

Sadly, however, our small towns are shrinking. Many look to employment opportunities as a reason for the population loss, as younger folks are seeking better-paying jobs in urban centers.

Traditionally, small communities have offered a lower cost-of-living than big cities, providing an attractive incentive for growing families. But as inflation ravaged our nation’s economy, living a rural lifestyle became less affordable, threatening to spark an exodus that could have generational consequences.

Retailers in these areas have less flexibility to simply ride out the market, as they are often dealing with smaller inventories and tighter margins. Families must drive longer distances (and thereby use more fuel) to access basic necessities, like food, schools, and churches. And with fewer dining options, many choose to eat at home rather than out at a restaurant (the inflationary cost of groceries has outpaced eating out, 11.8 percent to 8.3%).

In short, the industries, products, and services that inflation hit most – gas, groceries, healthcare, and heating/cooling – are categories that rural residents already spent a higher-than-average amount on. As such, inflation’s impact was multiplied in these areas – or at least that’s what we think.

The truth is that we don’t actually know because the federal government has failed to examine inflation’s impact on rural areas.

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics frequently takes a Consumer Price Index survey to measure inflation and guide policymakers on the state of the economy. The Bureau, however, only surveys counties with a metro- or micropolitan area (in other words, a county that contains a town of at least 10,000 people). That leaves most of rural Mississippi behind, or as University of Wisconsin-Madison economics professor Tessa Conroy said: “Ultimately, it’s going to mean that we don’t see and account for the lived experience of rural communities.”

All in all, Conroy estimates about 14 percent of America is left uncounted; the Bureau of Labor Statistics believes the number is closer to 7 percent. But in a state like Mississippi, that number is realistically closer to 50 percent. That’s a lot of people’s experiences that have been left behind, silenced, and forgotten.

If we are going to protect our small communities, we need to make sure our rural communities count. The federal government should include the lived experience of rural residents in its data and then take that information into account when making policy decisions. I believe small-town Mississippi is essential to our way of life. It is worth counting. It is worth protecting.