Maybe Mississippi is more complicated than conventional wisdom suggests.

 

From the outside, the state looks like the most conservative place in the nation’s most conservative region. In some ways that’s true enough, but Mississippi has always, for better and worse, done things its own way. And maybe, like the rest of the South, the state isn’t the monolith that conventional wisdom says it is.

At least, that’s what a recent NBC News/Survey Monkey online survey suggests. The network gave the University of Mississippi an early look at the survey and shared the results with a class of eight students who used the data as the foundation for this series of reports.

The project, conducted in March of 2018, polled a sample of 1,486 adults living in Mississippi concerning a range of issues of interest to the state. The survey was part of a larger project that polled a national sample of more than 15,000 adults and more than 4,100 adults living in 11 Southern states.

Among the highlights in Mississippi:

Respondents were almost evenly split on the condition of the state’s economy, but a third said it should be the legislature’s top priority, followed by education, health care, and infrastructure.

About six in 10 respondents do not think the state is doing a good job of maintaining roads and bridges, but about the same number said they would be willing to pay higher taxes to improve infrastructure and public schools.

Mississippians trust the state more than the federal government, and clear majorities approve of the legislature, the governor, and the state’s two senators.

About six in 10 respondents think race relations in the state are either staying the same or improving, but more than a third think they are getting worse. About two-thirds oppose removing Confederate monuments.

But almost the same number of respondents said most undocumented immigrants working in the United States should get the chance to apply for legal status.

So, maybe Mississippi isn’t as simple as it looks from the outside. Just like the South, and the rest of the country, isn’t either. Maybe William Faulkner had it right:

“To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.”

Data: NBC News/SurveyMonkey

Jobs and the Economy

OXFORD, MS – While Mississippi Democrats and Republicans do not seem to agree on most things today, according to a recent survey, they do come together on one issue: jobs and the economy.

A March NBC News/Survey Monkey online poll of 1,486 state residents indicates that 31 percent of Mississippians said the economy is the most important issue facing the state today, including 32 percent of Republicans, 29 percent of Democrats and 30 percent of independents.

But Mississippians are split on whether the state’s economy is working. Some 43 percent said the economy was “fairly good” and 4 percent rated it “very good.”

“There may be people in the delta that would say it’s terrible, but to me it seems like people are doing well. I think it would be different if we were in some other places in Mississippi,” said Evan Williams, a University of Mississippi employee.

But 33 percent said it was “fairly bad” and 16 percent said the economy was “very bad.”

“Well, it ain’t where it should be,” said Willie Burt, a 60-year-old Oxonian.

The survey also indicated that one third of respondents, 33 percent, said that the economy should be the state legislature’s top priority. An important part of that will be continuing to lower the unemployment rate, which is hovering around 4.6 percent, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Anytime you have people unemployed, they aren’t able to put money back into the local and state economy,” according to local restaurant owner Chuck McCarthy.

For some Oxford residents, an improving economy is the most important priority because everything else in the state depends on it.

“I feel like everything else will fall into place if we get that worked out,” said Kalinda Jenkins, a 35-year-old cook.

Data: NBC News/SurveyMonkey

Data: NBC News/SurveyMonkey

Education

Data: NBC News/SurveyMonkey

Data: NBC News/SurveyMonkey

Education is on the minds of Mississippians, but especially for ethnic minorities between the ages of 18 and 24.

According to a March 2018 poll conducted by NBC and Survey Monkey, 21 percent of African Americans and 16 percent of Hispanics in the state consider education to be the most important issue to them, as opposed to only 9 percent of whites.

“I think that a lot of the problems we have in our state have a grassroots solution of education,” said Savannah Smith, a senior public policy leadership major at Ole Miss. “It all trickles down from there. If we can really push our efforts to fix that, then I think a lot of the other solutions will follow.”

In comparison to the South as a whole, Mississippi ranks last in both educational quality and education attainment. Nationally, the state ranks ahead of only West Virginia in terms of the latter.

State spending for public education is on the lower end compared to other states, resulting in some well-publicized battles over funding for public schools. But 60 percent of respondents said they would be at least somewhat willing to pay higher taxes to improve schools.

“If you put more money into education and make sure kids in Mississippi are educated, then it will help…other areas,” Oxford financial planner Stirling Pittman said. “Oxford is the exception to the problem, to the rest of the state. Horrible areas get less education.”

For some, fixing what they see as an ailing education system is the key to greater prosperity for the state as a whole.

“I believe access to education means access to opportunity,” Ole Miss student Meliah Grant said. “All of these things are important, and a good education system allows us to build on those from the bottom.

Immigration

On one of the hottest of hot-button issues to surface in the last presidential campaign, Mississippi is a bit more conservative than its Southern neighbors when it comes to immigration.

In Mississippi, 63 percent of respondents said that undocumented immigrants should have the chance to apply for legal status, compared to 69 percent of respondents across the rest of the South.

“They should be offered citizenship if they working and bettering America,” said Alexus Coleman, a 21-year-old retail worker. “Many immigrants haven’t had the chance to apply, and they’ve been here since birth.”

For some, economic impact weighed heavy in those immigrants’ favor.

“A lot of immigrants have become an important part of our economy,” 76-year-old Oxonian Charles Henry said. “They deserve a chance to stay.”

But 34 percent said those undocumented immigrants should have to leave the United States, compared to 28 percent of respondents across the rest of the region.

“They’re here illegally,” cook Lenetha Brassell said. “We can’t go to their country illegally.”

Legality was the sticking point for many, regardless of the positive contributions these immigrants might make.

“The law is the law,” according to Ole Miss student Cody Garrison. “Immigrants are so important to America, but they need to do it the right way.”

Immigrants make up about 2 percent of Mississippi’s population, according to the latest U.S. Census. And they are a significant part of the state’s labor force, comprising between 6 and 8 percent of construction, farming and military occupations, according to the American Immigration Council.

But reliable numbers can be hard to come by. After settling in an area, immigrants may move. Undocumented immigrants may work hard to stay off the radar at all.

And for some, the answer to the country’s immigration question is not as simple as drawing a hard line.

“All immigrants aren’t the same,” said Emily Roblee, a payables coordinator in Oxford. “It shouldn’t be so cut and dry.”

Data: NBC News/SurveyMonkey

Data: NBC News/SurveyMonkey

Healthcare

For nearly a quarter of Mississippians healthcare is at the top of their list of priorities, higher by a slight margin than those in other Southern states.

Overall, 23 percent of respondents in the state said the issue mattered the most to them, compared to 20 percent of respondents across the region.

Women, at 31 percent, ranked healthcare as their most important issue by a nearly a two-and-a-half-to-one margin more than men, at 13 percent.

And, as the ages of respondents increased, so did the importance of healthcare, particularly for those older than 45.

“A lot of people are sick and can’t even afford to go to the doctor,” according to 54-year-old Oxonian Lenetha Brassell.

But even for some younger respondents, healthcare weighs heavier than many of the other issues facing the state. For those too old to be on their parents’ insurance plans but not in higher paying jobs, the potential economic squeeze is reason to worry.

“If you don’t have insurance there’s nothing you can do,” said Kyia Sanders, 28, an Oxford restaurant worker. You have to get a GoFundMe or something.”

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