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Nation’s debt default would hurt Mississippi’s already fragile jobs market more than most

Mississippi’s already lackluster employment numbers would be impacted more than most states if Congress does not raise the debt limit to pay the nation’s bills.

If there is a long-term lapse in the nation’s ability to pay its debt, the state could lose as many as 64,000 jobs or 5.4% of its workforce, according to a recent report by Moody’s Analytics, a subsidiary of Moody’s credit rating agency. In a short-term scenario, Mississippi would lose as many as 21,700 jobs or 1.23% of its workforce. Moody’s predicts only five states would lose a larger percentage of their workforce than Mississippi.

“The blow to the economy would be cataclysmic,” Moody’s said of a “prolonged breach” of the debt limit. Moody’s reasons that states that depend more on federal revenue would be the ones most negatively impacted if the nation defaults on its debt.

The Republican leadership of the House is currently refusing to raise the nation’s debt limit to pay past commitments made by Congress unless multiple cuts are made to future spending. Congressional leaders and President Joe Biden currently are negotiating a deal that will result in raising the credit limit. If no deal is reached, projections are the nation could be unable to pay its debt starting in early June.

The debt limit debate comes as Gov. Tate Reeves has touted the state’s job growth as part of his reelection campaign. The Republican Reeves will likely face Democratic Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley in the November general election.

After April’s unemployment rate of 3.4% was announced for Mississippi, Reeves said: “Reaching a record low unemployment rate in back-to-back months speaks volumes to Mississippi’s momentum. Our education system is thriving, jobs are plentiful, and there are more opportunities than ever before. We’re making historic investments in workforce development and infrastructure and are attracting thousands of high-paying jobs to every region of the state. It’s a great day to be a Mississippian.”

Despite those low unemployment numbers, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals that there were fewer Mississippians working in April of this year than in April 2022. In April 2023, 1.212 million were employed — 8,089 fewer than were working a year ago.

April marks the seventh consecutive month where there were fewer Mississippians working than in the prior year, according to BLS data. There are 2,073 fewer jobs in April 2023 than in January 2020 when Reeves took office, though April 2023 numbers are still preliminary.

Employment numbers have been tenuous in Mississippi for some time. The state’s highest levels of employment occurred in May 2000, when there were 1.24 million employed. That number has never been surpassed.

Mississippi’s labor force participation rate also peaked in early 2000, when 62.85% of the people eligible to work were employed. The state’s rate is currently at 54.5% and trails the national average of 62.9% and all other states with the exception of West Virginia.

Responding to those numbers in the past, Reeves has said there are jobs available for people who want to work.

But those jobs pay less than jobs in other states. Mississippi has the lowest mean or average household income at $65,156 per year. Mississippi has trailed the rest of the nation in per capita income for decades, though Reeves points out per capital income has increased by 21% or $8,100 since 2019.

Wages in Mississippi, like in the rest of the nation, have been increasing since the pandemic. Personal income in Mississippi grew by an annualized rate of 4.1% between the third and fourth quarters of 2022. During the same period, the nation’s personal income grew by an annualized rate of 7.4%, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

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Report: Access to special education services for young children is low in Mississippi, racial disparities exist

Fewer Mississippi children participate in special education services for young children than the national average, according to a new report.

The report found that participation increases with state median income. 

The National Institute for Early Education Research published a report Tuesday evaluating the state of services for children with disabilities, particularly the federal programs known as Early Intervention, for children under three, and Early Childhood Special Education, for children ages 3-5. The report uses data from the 2020-21 school year to focus on inequities in the availability of these services by race and state. 

Children are often referred to these programs when they show delays or difficulties during developmental screenings performed by pediatricians or child care centers. Mississippi has historically had a low rate of developmental screenings, but now ranks 33rd nationally due to investment from a federal grantResearch shows intervention improves outcomes and is more effective the earlier it is delivered.

In the 2020-21 school year, 1.5% of Mississippi kids received services through the under three program, while 3.2% did nationally. For children ages 3-5, 4.4% of Mississippi kids received services compared to 5.2% nationally. 

The report found a correlation between state median income and participation in these services, both of which were low for Mississippi. Experts attributed this pattern to health care access and state policy choices. 

“Those families that either don’t have health care or don’t have transportation to get to health care are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to accessing early intervention programs,” said Katy Neas, deputy assistant secretary with the U.S. Department of Education. “Having done some work in your state, the lack of providers in places outside of Jackson is really quite profound.”

Neas added that local Head Starts provide a high-quality experience for young children with disabilities, helping to address the gap in options.  

Steve Barnett, co-director of the institute, also pointed out that some other states with low median incomes face similar challenges but have much higher enrollment, naming New Mexico and West Virginia as examples. He said these differences in state policy are one of the reasons they recommend convening state leaders to share ideas. 

The report also found when children in Mississippi finish the under three program, many are not being screened to see if they are eligible for the 3 to 5-year-old program. Neas said she believes a lack of collaboration between state agencies can lead to this issue; in Mississippi, the under three program is operated by the Mississippi Department of Health, while the 3-5 program is operated by local school districts. Nearly 40% of Mississippi children in the younger program were not evaluated for the older one. About 20% of kids in the under three program were evaluated and found to be eligible for the 3-5 program. Nationally, these numbers are nearly reversed. 

“… If kids have the audacity to turn three at a time other than the beginning of the school year, sometimes the transition can be sub-optimal,” said Neas.

She added that this transition is a point of focus for the U.S. Department of Education.

The report also highlights racial disparities in the children receiving services, with white children having higher rates of enrollment nationally than Black or Hispanic children, a pattern that largely holds true in Mississippi. 

There are also racial differences in the disabilities students are enrolled to address. In the program for students aged 3-5, significantly more white children are enrolled for speech or language impairments than developmental delays. For Black children, there is a nearly equal distribution of kids between the two categories. 

States are required to measure children who participate in these programs using three goals: positive social-emotional skills; acquisition and use of knowledge and skills; and use of appropriate behaviors to meet their needs. In Mississippi, about 50% of children met these goals for the under three program, and closer to 70% of kids met them by the end of the 3 to 5-year-old program. 

The report authors did not offer specific policy suggestions to address these disparities, save additional federal funding, and instead called on the federal government to convene a national commission to study the issues and share best practices among states. 

On the press call, Neas emphasized struggles with adequate staffing for these programs and child care centers more broadly as an area that needs attention.

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Podcast: Talking golf with Mississippi’s Mr. Golf, Randy Watkins.

The golf season is in full bloom, and Randy Watkins, Mississippi’s Mr. Golf, joins us to talk PGA Championship, Brooks Koepka, who won, and Michael Block, who stole the show (and has a Mississippi connection). We also discuss Wilson Furr, the Jackson native, who has played his way into the spotlight on the Korn Ferry Tour.

Stream all episodes here.

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‘This is not OK’: Mother of 11-year-old shot by Indianola police pleads for answers

Aderrien Murry, 11, was shot by police on Saturday. (Photo courtesy the boy’s mother Nakala Murry)

Days after an 11-year-old boy was shot in the chest by an Indianola police officer, family and community members are calling for answers and for the officer’s termination.

Community members identified the boy as Aderrien Murry. He was shot early Saturday morning when officers responded to a domestic call at his home, according to a statement from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, which is investigating the shooting.

As of Tuesday, Murry is in the intensive care unit at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, the family’s attorney Carlos Moore said. He was placed on a ventilator because he has a collapsed lung, and he has other injuries including fractured ribs and a lacerated liver. 

Information about why the unarmed Murry was shot has not been released, said Moore, who is representing the boy’s family and joined them and community members at a Monday press conference outside of Indianola City Hall. 

“This cannot keep happening. This is not OK,” said Nakala Murry, the boy’s mother, during the press conference. “If a non-police officer was to shoot someone, you know it’s not okay. When the police do it, they have protocol. He was trained. He knows what to do.”

Nakala Murry said her son is strong, but Aderrien does not understand what happened to him. 

“His words were: ‘Why did he shoot me? What did I do?’ and he started crying,” she said. 

She remembers holding her son, applying pressure to his wound and seeing blood run from his mouth — an image she sees every time she closes her eyes. 

Nakala Murry said police were called to the house because the father of her other child came over and was acting irate. When he acted this way, she knew something could potentially happen and wanted “to stop it right there.” She snuck her phone to her son and asked him to call her mother and the police. 

Investigators did not name the Indianola police officer, but Moore said his investigation uncovered that the officer is Greg Capers, who was named the department’s “best officer.” 

“If he’s your best, Indianola, you need a clean house from top to bottom,” Moore said. 

After the conference, the group attended the Board of Aldermen meeting. On Monday evening, the board voted to place Capers on paid administrative leave pending further investigation, Moore said. 

He said there is always a possibility for the board to call a special meeting to take further action with Capers. 

Murry’s family and supporters are calling for Capers and Police Chief Ronald Sampson to be fired and body camera footage to be released within 48 hours. Moore is also asking the Sunflower County district attorney to prosecute the officer for attempted murder. 

If the city does not act, Moore said Murry’s family and supporters plan to hold a sit-in at Indianola City Hall starting Thursday morning. 

Moore directly addressed Mayor Ken Featherstone, telling him to take the shooting seriously, and Sampson, telling him to give the family and community answers and questioning why he didn’t take past misconduct from Capers seriously. 

Moore said the officer has not been disciplined for tasing another client of his, Kelvin Franklin, while the man was in handcuffs in December 2022. 

On Tuesday, Sampson declined to comment, but he said he and the mayor are likely to make a statement once MBI completes its investigation. Featherstone did not respond to a request for comment. 

“What are you waiting on? Someone to actually die?” Moore said during the press conference. “An 11-year-old almost died. By the grace of God, he is alive. The people of Indianola are not going to wait until somebody dies.”

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Army Corps to hold public discussion over Jackson flood control, including ‘One Lake’ project

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is moving forward in finding a solution for flood control in Jackson and will hold two public meetings in the city on Wednesday to present new details and listen to residents.

The Corps put out an update last week indicating that a new environmental impact study is in the works. In the new study, the federal agency will compare several flood control options, including the highly-debated “One Lake” project.

It’s the latest step in a decades-long effort to shore up flooding from the Pearl River in the capital city.

For years, a local sponsor — the Rankin Hinds Flood & Drainage Control District — has pushed One Lake, a proposal that would widen the river for about nine miles between Jackson and Rankin County and add recreational areas for residents. The proposal’s backers suggest it would reduce flood risk by giving the river more room to flow and by bolstering levees along the edges.

The Corps will also look at other alternatives, however, including buy-outs for the 3,000 structures in the flood plain, as well as elevation and other flood-proofing measures. The agency’s release said that the Corps may also consider hybrids of the alternatives and One Lake.

The agency is expecting a draft of the study to be released for public comment in September. After a 45-day public review period, the Corps will incorporate feedback into a final study. Once the final study is finished, the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works will take at least 30 days to make a decision on the project proposal.

The two public meetings will be on Wednesday, May 24, at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m., both at the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum at 1150 Lakeland Drive in Jackson.

Last fall, the Army Corps pledged $221 million to the project, contingent on its approval. The flood district’s attorney, Keith Turner, said at the time that One Lake is estimated to cost $340 million.

Ever since the district first announced the plan in 2011, criticisms from Republicans and Democrats, officials in Mississippi and Louisiana — where the Pearl River flows into Lake Borgne and then into the Gulf of Mexico — and environmental experts and advocates nationwide have plagued the project. Opponents argue One Lake would threaten endangered species, valuable wetlands, and interrupt water flow to communities downstream.

The Corps’ upcoming study will look at any adverse environmental impacts and weigh it against the flood control benefits provided by the project. One Lake, the agency noted, would convert 2,069 acres of terrestrial habitat into aquatic habitat, and also impact about 1,861 acres of wetlands and “other waters of the U.S.”

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McDaniel challenges Hosemann to debates in lieutenant governor race

Chris McDaniel is challenging incumbent Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann to a series of debates ahead of the Aug. 8 GOP primary.

“Mississippi voters deserve the chance to hear directly from the candidates running to represent them in Jackson,” McDaniel, a four-term state senator, said. “… I hope Delbert Hosemann will join me and provide Mississippi voters with transparency on where his values and priorities are.”

Hosemann campaign spokeswoman Leah Rupp Smith in a statement responded: “We have already been to candidate forums, one with all lieutenant governor candidates, and others are planned in the future.”

Conventional campaign wisdom is for an incumbent frontrunner, particularly one with a wide-margin lead in fundraising and-or name recognition to shy away from debates that could give a little-known insurgent a toe hold. But McDaniel is well known to voters from unsuccessful but notable runs for U.S. Senate and he could make hay if Hosemann refuses to debate. Voters tend to expect debates in top-ticket races such as for lieutenant governor and governor.

Last cycle, Hosemann and his Democratic opponent, then-state Rep. Jay Hughes, had a televised debate in Hosemann’s successful first run for lieutenant governor.

READ MORE: Hosemann, Hughes agree a lot during debate; neither will work to legislatively change flag

News in the GOP primary race for lieutenant governor has thus far been dominated by Hosemann’s claims that McDaniel’s campaign and a PAC he created violated campaign finance laws with improper reporting and large donations from an out-of-state dark money group, most of which McDaniel has reported he returned.

READ MORE: Chris McDaniel’s reports deny accurate public accounting of campaign money

McDaniel in a letter to Hosemann asked him to participate in debates — “a staple of American elections and key to the Democratic process.” He posted the letter on social media and said, “Enough of Delbert ‘the Democrat’ and his nonsense political games. It’s time to talk about the issues impacting Mississippi voters everyday.”

McDaniel is proposing holding televised debates in Jackson, Tupelo, Gulfport-Biloxi, the Pine Belt, DeSoto, and also having one at the Neshoba County Fair.

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The exodus continues: Three major health systems leave state hospital association

The Mississippi Hospital Association shrinks again as several hospitals dropped out of the state trade organization this week.

Ochsner Health System and North Mississippi Medical Center recently left the association. Merit Health also severed ties, according to multiple media reports.

The exodus began in late April, when the state’s largest public hospital, the University of Mississippi Medical Center, left the MHA. Memorial Hospital System in Gulfport, Singing River on the coast, George Health System and Forrest General Hospital followed soon after.

Almost none of the hospital’s letters announcing their departure cited a reason beyond doubts with the organization’s “leadership.” All of the hospitals’ leaders have declined to publicly expand on their decisions. 

The separations, however, come on the heels of a major donation from the MHA’s political action committee.

The PAC contributed $250,000, its largest donation in history, to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brandon Presley’s campaign just days before UMMC dropped out of the organization, MHA executive director Tim Moore previously confirmed to Mississippi Today. 

Presley is an outspoken proponent of Medicaid expansion. Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, the incumbent candidate, has adamantly opposed the measure, though a recent poll shows most Mississippians support it.

Research shows Medicaid expansion would bring millions into Mississippi’s struggling hospitals. Moore previously told Mississippi Today that’s why the hospitals’ departures have bewildered him. 

He said the donation to Presley’s campaign was made after the MHA board recommended the move. Though the PAC operates separately from the MHA, it’s also headed up by Moore, who serves on the MHA board. 

Ochsner’s termination letter to the MHA, attributed to Chief Operating Officer and President Mike Hulefeld, reiterated previous hospitals’ concerns about the organization’s leadership. 

“There is tremendous value in having a hospital association that serves as a strategic and thoughtful advocate on issues of importance to Mississippi’s hospitals and the patients we serve,” Hulefeld said in the letter, dated May 19. “Unfortunately, MHA’s current leadership and approach is preventing the association from accomplishing this goal.”

All of the hospitals that Ochsner operates in Mississippi will no longer be part of the MHA, the letter confirmed.

North Mississippi Medical Center declined to provide their termination letter to Mississippi Today, but a spokesperson confirmed that four of their facilities — in Tupelo, Eupora, Iuka and Pontotoc — would be leaving the organization.

Merit Health, which operates nine hospitals across Mississippi, confirmed to Magnolia Tribune that they, too, would be ending their relationship with the MHA. Spokespeople for the hospital system could not be reached by time of publication.

The state trade organization lobbies on behalf of Mississippi’s hospitals. As they continue to lose members, Moore said it would impact their finances and ability to successfully advocate. 

The MHA is largely funded through member dues, and Moore in a previous interview said the departures would have to be accounted for when calculating funding for the next fiscal year, which starts in July.

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Nonprofit fights for funding to open state’s first birth center

Maternity health clinic owner and public health expert Getty Israel is still on a mission: to open Mississippi’s first freestanding, midwife-run birth center.

Should she be successful, Mississippi would join neighboring states such as Tennessee, Louisiana, Arkansas and Florida in providing an alternative to giving birth in a hospital setting for pregnant women who are low-risk. The birth center would also be a place for women to receive prenatal care from certified nurse midwives as well as postpartum support.

But after nearly a year working to secure funding for her nonprofit Sisters in Birth to open the center, she’s come up short – and she blames what she calls an unfair and unclear federal funding process funneled through the state’s members of Congress. 

Israel applied for federal funds through a lesser-known program called Community Project Funding in which constituents can request their senator or representative recommend their projects for funding to the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations. Only nonprofits are eligible for the funds, and lawmakers must also certify that they and their immediate family members do not have a financial interest in the organization.

She said despite providing ample evidence of the benefits of birth centers and midwife care to mothers and babies, plus a letter of support from State Health Officer Dr. Dan Edney, Republican U.S. Sens. Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith – whom she refers to as “so-called pro-life” – and Democratic 2nd District U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson did not refer her project for funding. 

However, they did request funding for projects for nonprofits with millions in net assets and hired lobbyists – a point with which Israel, whose organization reported around $5,000 in negative net assets on its most recently available tax form, took issue.

Getty Israel, founder and CEO of Sisters in Birth, Inc., sits for a portrait at Sisters in Birth in Jackson, Miss., Friday, May 27, 2022. Sisters in Birth is a women’s health clinic that utilizes an integrative and holistic approach to women’s healthcare. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

“You should see the waste on the list. I identified 13 large, wealthy organizations, which primarily receive the bulk of this recommended funding for fiscal years 2023 and 2024 – they have total net assets of tens of millions of dollars,” she said. “Several of these organizations aren’t in Mississippi.”

She said small nonprofits in Mississippi desperately need funding but may not be aware of how to get it, much less successfully get on any congress member’s recommended funding list.

“There are thousands of nonprofit organizations in Mississippi; the majority are small and struggling to provide crucial services to Mississippians. These organizations likely have never heard of these federal earmark programs because our congressional members fail to promote it,” she said. “Consequently, only corporations with relationships to legislators or their staff will know to apply.”

Information about Community Project Funding is on each Congress member’s website, along with a page dedicated to information about applying for federal grants. General guidance for applying for Community Project Funding is online.

Neither Wicker nor Hyde-Smith responded to questions for this story. A spokeswoman for Thompson said no favoritism is given to particular applications but declined to answer specific questions.

“Each application stands on its own,” Alexus Hunter, press secretary for Thompson, said. “The federal government considers supporting a variety of federal programs. However, this application wasn’t selected through the (Community Project Funding).”

Wicker’s office requested $1.5 million for a D.C.-based group called Reading is Fundamental Inc. to implement a childhood literacy program in Mississippi. His office also recommended sending $997,000 to a group called Save the Children, also located in D.C., for a project that would provide learning resources to children and families in rural communities in the state.

Wicker is not the only Mississippian to steer funding to Save the Children – the well-regarded humanitarian organization also received TANF money from the Mississippi Department of Human Services in 2017. In 2021, Gov. Tate Reeves awarded the organization $460,000 in pandemic relief funds, and the organization also receives funding from the Mississippi Department of Education for literacy, nutrition and fitness programming in the schools. 

Hyde-Smith’s requested projects for fiscal year 2024 included everything from $7 million for a road project in a wealthy area of Madison County to millions for training programs at universities and community colleges to $4 million for water supply improvements for the city of Byram.

In fiscal year 2023 – the year for which Israel first applied for funds through Thompson’s office – his office requested hundreds of thousands each to cultural projects like the Community Museums of African American History and Culture Project in Belzoni and the Catfish Row Museum in Vicksburg. Also on the list was $2 million for the construction of a new clinic in Greenville.  

A 2018 evaluation of a federal study of health and cost outcomes for mothers and babies on Medicaid showed women who received care in birth centers had better outcomes – including lower rates of preterm birth, low birthweight and fewer C-sections compared to other Medicaid participants with similar characteristics. Those in the study who received midwife-directed care at a birth center also cost an average of $2,010 less than their Medicaid counterparts.

Israel believes such a clinic would improve maternal and infant health outcomes by minimizing medical interventions and reducing Mississippi’s first-in-the-nation C-section rates. Midwives’ holistic approach, she said, could also have a positive impact on the state’s high rates of preterm and low birthweight babies.

There are currently about 400 birth centers open and providing care in the U.S., according to the American Association of Birth Centers. Mississippi is one of only eight states that does not have a birth center. 

Jill Alliman, a certified nurse midwife who is on the board of directors of the American Association of Birth Centers, said birth centers are especially equipped to handle pregnant women with social risk factors such as mental health challenges, lower education levels or a history of domestic violence – common challenges in a community like Jackson.

Alliman said the presence of a birth center and the midwife-centered care that comes along with it could be “life changing.” 

“I think that in states like Mississippi that have so many challenges with maternal and infant health, there needs to be a big effort to increase access to the midwifery model of care and to offer options for birth center care because it’s part of the solution,” she said. “We can see that doing what we’ve been doing for so long is not working.”

Mississippi’s maternal mortality rate is worsening, the latest data shows. The rate increased from 33.2 deaths per 100,000 live births in the time span of 2013 to 2016 to 36.0 deaths per live births from 2017 to 2019. 

The worsening rate disproportionately impacts Black women, who had a rate of 65.1 deaths per 100,000 live births – more than four times the ratio for white women. 

“The (maternal and infant health) outcomes are deplorable in Mississippi. Over the last 50 years, those numbers just seem to get worse,” Israel said. “ … Midwives put an intervention in place. She’s looking at the whole person and treating the whole person.”

State Health Officer Dr. Daniel Edney echoed Israel in a letter of support he wrote for Israel’s birth center, calling it “change that cannot wait” in Mississippi.

“As you know, many women in Mississippi are unable to access prenatal care and adequate labor and delivery options that are safe for both mothers and babies,” he said. “… The use of birthing centers, with affiliations with critical access hospitals, is one of those evidence-based options that has demonstrated success in improving health outcomes for mothers and babies.” 

Officials with the Mississippi State Medical Association declined to respond when asked for the organization’s position on birth centers. 

Israel has shifted her approach: she is now reaching out to private organizations for fundraising. She has also produced a documentary about birth disparities in Mississippi that she is promoting nationwide to raise awareness about the issues facing Mississippi and to let people know they can help by donating money to build a birth center.

She said she’s found an ideal location in the medical district in Jackson and plans to purchase it.

However, In the meantime, women are driving to Memphis and Baton Rouge for birth centers, she said.

“I’m done looking inside the state of Mississippi. I’ve knocked on many doors –  corporations, foundations, city and local governments … There’s no (financial) support in Mississippi, but I know women want this. I’m not driven by these so-called leaders. I’m driven by what women want.”

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