Mississippi has room to grow as the rest of the South sees manufacturing job growth

Published 8:05 am Thursday, April 13, 2017

An insightful story from the Reuters news service makes the very valid point that the Rust Belt of the Midwest faces job competition from more than one place.

President Donald Trump got elected on the strength of his ability to convince Rust Belt voters that he could bring back manufacturing jobs that have gone overseas. But the Reuters story, along with some revealing charts, makes it obvious that the Rust Belt also faces competition for these jobs from Southern states.

Using several measuring sticks, Reuters concludes that the South and the Rust Belt have traded places over the last few decades. The South clearly is trending upward; the Rust Belt is struggling.

The nine Southern states in the Reuters’ comparison stretch from the Carolinas to Texas but exclude Florida. The nine Rust Belt states run from West Virginia to Minnesota, and include the key Trump victory states of Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Perhaps the most surprising statistic is each region’s share of gross domestic product. Southern GDP, as a percentage of the national economy, has increased from 19 percent in 1990 to 22 percent in 2015. Over the same period, the Rust Belt’s share has fallen from 21 percent to 19.

Both regions have lost about 28 percent of their manufacturing jobs since 2000. But the South leads the country in the growth of all private jobs from 2000-2015 — up 12 percent. The country as a whole has increased its number of jobs by 8 percent over that period. But jobs in the Rust Belt have declined by 1 percent.

The statistic that applies most directly to people is income. In 1960, Southern per capita income was 74 percent of the national average. In 2015 it was 88 percent. In the Rust Belt, 1960 per capita income was 101 percent of the national average, but in 2015 it had fallen to 94 percent.

This evolution involves more than the automobile industry, and more than the idea that labor costs in Southern states are lower because workers are less receptive to unions.

Economists say that the South’s skilled workforce continues to grow as college graduates move to the region. Many are coming from places such as the Rust Belt.

State taxes tend to be lower down South, and there is still plenty of low-cost land available for large industrial projects.

The Reuters story focuses on states such as North Carolina and Alabama. North Carolina is doing a good job of attracting skilled, educated workers. Alabama has done well with automakers and its port at Mobile, where the goal is to triple the number of containers that move through each year.

All this leads to the obvious question: Why isn’t Mississippi sharing in more of the South’s good fortune? The big-picture answer is that we still have a ways to go to catch up with our neighbors on workforce skills. Our smaller and less-educated population is also a factor.

Even so, Mississippi should be patient and persistent. We are in the right part of the country. It’s a matter of time before good things happen.

— The Greenwood Commonwealth