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Life Is About to Get Even Rougher for Mississippi’s Unemployed

In the poorest state in the nation, a push to cancel federal support for those out of work.

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Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba volunteers at a drive-thru food bank on March 6 in Jackson, Mississippi. Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty.

This spring for the first time since 1894, policymaking at the Mississippi State Capitol in Jackson is being conducted under a flag that does not include the Confederate battle flag. In November, in the wake of the George Floyd rebellion, voters overwhelmingly affirmed replacing it with a design featuring a magnolia blossom encircled in stars.

Co-published by Across Mississippi Patch

Calling the acceptance of the new design “a solemn occasion to lead our Mississippi family to come together to be reconciled and to move on,” Gov. Tate Reeves set an expectation that change was in the air. But his recent move to cut off federal benefits that in April began putting cash in the hands of over a hundred thousand working households in Mississippi has left some residents of the state wondering if the new flag is just an empty gesture flapping in the breeze.

Unless Reeves reverses course, June 12 will mark the final day that Mississippians currently receiving state unemployment benefits will also get the federal weekly supplement of $300 under the American Rescue Plan Act, which is scheduled to expire on Sept. 6.


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Announcing his decision to opt out of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) on social media on May 10, Reeves wrote that his decision came “[a]fter many conversations over the last several weeks with Mississippi small business owners and their employees.” Through these informal talks it became clear to him that PUA was no longer necessary in Mississippi, said the governor.

Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation. Family income is pegged dead last in assorted studies: median household income is $45,081, compared to the United States average of $65,712, and the percentage of people living in poverty, 19.6%, is 7.3% higher than the national average. Widespread poverty persists throughout the state: Only three of Mississippi’s 82 counties have poverty rates near the U.S. average, and some counties have up to 41% of people living in poverty.

Reeves wasn’t the first or the last state leader to refuse the federal funding. Some 25 Republican governors have justified cutting off the benefits by invoking the existence of a “labor shortage” and claiming that the PUA supplement disincentivizes citizens from filling available jobs. Reeves is betting that unemployed workers forced to make do on Mississippi’s maximum weekly benefit of $235 will return to work at the small businesses that say they cannot currently fill their open slots.

It is minorities, low earners and women who’ve been disproportionately impacted by enduring job loss during the pandemic; some 32%-42% of COVID-induced layoffs will be permanent, predicts a University of Chicago study. Critics say the voters who need continued help while finding their new footing are not likely to forget that Reeves squeezed them harder when they were already hurting from a pandemic in the state with the country’s lowest vaccination rate.
 


Mississippi’s latest recorded unemployment rate — 6.2% — is less than a half percent above the pre-pandemic rate of 5.8%, a statistic that’s got critics of the governor’s decision wondering, what labor shortage?


 
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba puts it this way: “In Mississippi we look at more and more ways to rob the poor instead of looking to share our sacrifice. We feed the same counterproductive narratives and never learn from what we’ve experienced. No matter whether the nation experiences prosperity or recession, in Mississippi we’re always at the bottom.”

The April 2021 labor force data shows a loss of 1,700 jobs from March, mostly in the state’s manufacturing and professional and business services sectors. The state’s latest recorded unemployment rate — 6.2% — is less than a half percent above the pre-pandemic rate of 5.8% recorded in February 2020, a statistic that’s got critics of the governor’s decision wondering, what shortage? More likely they say, there’s been a labor market shift a “Breaking Point,” as the Mississippi Free Press recently called it — in which workers have abandoned certain industries because of low wages and hazardous working conditions, a reality unlikely to be affected by prematurely ending the federal benefit.

*   *   *

In his long career as a labor organizer, Robert Shaffer, president of the Mississippi AFL-CIO, worked in a plant with about 1,200 people for 20 years. It was 100% union.

“Everyone belonged and, if you didn’t, we kicked their ass. We believed if you worked there you had to pay dues ’cause you was drawing a good wage, benefits and pension, and we made it happen,” says Shaffer.

The way he sees it, standing up for workers in Mississippi is still a rough and tumble enterprise. It’s a “right to work” state where workers are twice as likely to be killed on the job as in the rest of the U.S. and a place where nearly four workers a week suffer an amputation or an injury that puts them in the hospital, according to a December 2017 National Employment Law Project report. Last summer unions sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture on behalf of poultry workers in six states including Mississippi to reverse the USDA’s 2018 line speed policy allowing companies to increase the slaughter of birds to a rate of 175 per minute, up from 140. Plaintiffs have claimed that the faster pace makes social distancing impossible and worker injury overall more likely.

“It’s unreal how really bad it is,” Shaffer says, “Hell, we don’t even have a Department of Labor,” he points out: The name of the state agency governing labor affairs is the Department of Employment Security.

Shaffer, who is battling leukemia, says big things in a small voice. When it comes to cutting the federal benefit, he says Reeves is justifying his action with “a lie.”

“The lie is he can’t prove it,” Shaffer says. “Where are their numbers? All they’re saying is words. How much are these jobs that they can’t fill paying?”
 


“I would feel more compassionate to the governor’s position if he came out and said, ‘We got 50,000 people who won’t go back to work at good paying jobs.’ Who the hell are they? Where they at?”

~ Robert Shaffer, president of the Mississippi AFL-CIO

 
In his view too many workers in the state are stuck at the federal $7.25-per-hour minimum wage, which hasn’t budged since 2009, and restaurant workers are subject to the sub-minimum wage of $2.13 an hour, plus tips.

“All they’re doing is putting this drama shit out there but nobody’s getting the facts on it,” Shaffer says. “I would feel more compassionate to the governor’s position if he came out and said, ‘We got 50,000 people who won’t go back to work at good paying jobs.’ Who the hell are they? Where they at?”

Political scientist Stephen Rozman, who co-directs the Institute for the Study of Modern Day Slavery at Tougaloo College, says state leadership suffers from an anti-welfare mentality “as they define welfare.”

“They give businesspeople what they want because they say it trickles down. I call that ‘the urine effect,’ that’s what trickles down in Mississippi,” says Rozman.

He says it’s helpful to think of Mississippi as “a plantation society” where whites are 3/5ths of the population, and hierarchies of wealth and power are maintained by the very people being exploited.

“The white majority working class plays the game of the white majority that runs things, and their objective economic interests are submerged,” he contends.

Rozman paints a picture of Jackson as a place where the Republican Party’s “pro-business ideology,” distilled through Mississippi’s history as a slave state and Jim Crow society, has become an anti-worker dogma that keeps the whole state down.

Trying to transform it over decades, he says, has been “like flying into a headwind.”

*   *   *

Hezekiah Watkins has been arrested more times than any Freedom Rider in the state of Mississippi, including John Lewis — 109 arrests, beginning when he was 13 years old. He says the five days he was incarcerated in Parchman Prison, in a cell with two adult men who beat and sexually abused him, made him attuned to the state’s ethos of punishment for punishment’s sake.

Since the governor announced his decision, Watkins, who is a docent at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, says he has been listening for “a cry of disappointment” and watching out “for some type of protest.”

He thinks the governor is out of touch with the kind of obstacles community members face. “I know a lady who lost her job and sold her car to make rent. Now she doesn’t have transportation to get to work,” he explains. “There’s all kinds of variables out there.”

He also thinks Reeves is making a political miscalculation. “The governor has this wrong. A lot of times when politicians are doing and saying things, they think they’re doing things to one race. But this is inclusive,” he says.

Watkins may be right. The Economic Policy Institute charts state unemployment rates by race/ethnicity and overall. On one hand the pandemic has exposed racial disparities in all parts of the country. But it has also spurred overall increased unemployment, especially in March/April of 2020, when nationally more than 30 million workers filed new claims over the six-week period ending April 25.

“Reeves is not just hurting Blacks, he’s hurting everyone,” Watkins says.

Watkins, who owned a corner deli “in a bad part of Jackson” for many years, rejects the economic soundness of the notion that taking money away from people will be “good for the economy.”

“That $300 a week is being put to good use and stimulating the economy even when people are buying ice cream. The ice cream man had to buy his ice cream, the maker had to make it, the trucks had to ship it, so everybody’s getting a piece,” he says. “More groceries for their family, you can take a trip to grandma’s house. You want to get the economy rolling, but if you have no money to spend, how can you get it rolling?”
 


“From the business perspective, what we’re seeing in Jackson County is that people aren’t showing up for work, they aren’t applying for work, or they’re not showing up after they’ve applied.”

~ Paige Roberts, president and CEO of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce

 
Paige Roberts is president and CEO of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce on Mississippi’s easternmost Gulf Coast, adjacent to Mobile, Alabama. “We’re all about work here,” she says.

An industrialized county, it’s host to defense contractor Ingalls Shipbuilding and a Chevron refinery. Small businesses that serve them, along with community businesses, are going wanting for workers and are closing their doors, she says.

“From the business perspective, what we’re seeing in Jackson County is that people aren’t showing up for work, they aren’t applying for work, or they’re not showing up after they’ve applied.”

Reacting to the crisis of their members, she says something had to be done.

“There’s a sense of ‘enough is enough’ with providing financial gain that leads somebody who may live paycheck to paycheck with having to choose between staying at home and making more than going to work,” Roberts says.

She admits there are unknowns about whether this solution will fix the problem the chamber has identified.

“From the commerce side, we’re going to have to figure out if this is going to work,” she says. “Because a community cannot thrive in that type of environment.” That is, the risk of closure justifies the risk of hardship caused by ending federal support.

Governor Reeves’ office did not respond to multiple requests for comment by press time.

*   *   *

Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who roundly won a second term as mayor of the city of Jackson on June 8, says the stress that the governor’s action will put on Mississippians will have an immediate impact on the 160,628 people who call Jackson home, 80% of whom are Black.

“On the 13th of June, what’s going to happen is what we’re in fear of — we’re going to see the next phase of this trauma we’ve labeled as COVID,” says Mayor Lumumba. “And we’ll have to rescue ourselves.”

Though it’s less than a mile’s stroll from the Capitol to City Hall, Gov. Reeves did not consult with Lumumba, the mayor of Mississippi’s most populous city, before deciding to turn off the tap on the federal supplement. If he had Lumumba might have pointed out that even if his “reductive and uninformed” position was true, it illustrates “the issue is less that people are resistant to being part of the workforce, [but] that we have people who are part of the working poor — that it’s more profitable to not work because they aren’t making the wages they need in the work that they do.”

Lumumba thinks that keeping poor people poor “underpins the financial structure that we have. All of that is problematic,” he says, “because poverty is the worst form of violence.”

Lumumba points out that Reeves was lieutenant governor in the administration responsible for rejecting federal funds from Medicaid expansion in 2013. It was a policy position he affirmed as recently as March 12.

“We’re not surprised,” Lumumba says. “Reeves is a reflection of the lies that have been told to him his entire life, and his father’s, and going back. But it’s important to hold Gov. Reeves accountable.”

Lumumba is part of Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, a group of over 50 mayors who want to establish an income floor for their residents. He is following the progress of a pilot program run by the nonprofit Springboard to Opportunities that began with a cohort of 20 and now in its third year gives $1,000 a month to 100 moms living in public housing, no strings attached, for 12 months straight. On average that doubles their monthly income.

After the first year, 100% of the cohort said they had enough money to meet their basic needs. As a consequence they reported worrying less, saw an increase in positive family engagement and felt hopeful about their future in five years. They reported making significantly more meals at home, were able to pay their bills without additional support, completed high school with an eye towards college and paid down debt. In 2020, the stipend was a lifeline. There was a significant increase in food security, and some of the women were able to save a little money for emergencies.

Lumumba is actively seeking federal funding through the American Rescue Plan Act to scale up the program, which he views as an investigation into what actually happens if we connect our problems to our challenges.

“What we’ve learned is that you have mothers that have done the exact opposite of what was suggested they would do — they’re bettering the position of their whole family.”

The last 16 months have been a growth spurt for cities that have had to “learn our way through this crisis,” rising to positions “we were never equipped to sustain. But we’ve done it,” Lumumba says. In part because “necessity is the mother of invention,” but also because “oppression is the greatest organizer.”

Poised to lead Jackson for a second mayoral term, he’s realistic about his city’s possibilities. “Without state and federal support, we have severe limitations to what we can accomplish.”


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