There’s always another side to a story, and Mississippi’s story is no exception.
Jumping to the conclusion that everything’s “gloom and doom” can become real in its consequences. How can we prevent this? It’s data — specifically, data that reflect all of the facts. Data can help Mississippi tell its own story rather than be subject to the storytelling of others who have little knowledge of our state.
A recent study conducted by Governing — a media platform covering politics, policy and management for state and local government leaders — looks at the importance of millennials as the generation that will replace the demographic dominance of baby boomers. The study draws on annual Census projections to examine where millennials are growing or declining across the country.
One of the report’s statistics show Mississippi has lost more millennials than any other state between 2010 and 2016. With this information, some jumped to the conclusion that millennials are leaving the state at an alarming rate. The report provides no explanation for the decline. In fact, nowhere in the report does it even state that the statistic is a measure of millennials actually moving out of Mississippi.
Needless to say, people are jumping to conclusions.
To understand the dynamics of millennials leaving a state, you need longitudinal data that can track individuals over time, such as data from the U.S. Panel Study of Income Dynamics. Census estimates only give a snapshot of a population. Using snapshot data, the most appropriate analysis would be to compare the size of the share of millennials of the total state population across states. If we did this, we’d find millennials were 27 percent of Mississippi’s population in 2016, which is more than many other states and close to the national average (27.1 percent). This percentage hasn’t changed since 2010.
Using snapshot data to compare population change within the millennial age range (16 to 35) in Mississippi, another picture emerges. Between 2010 and 2016, the number of people ages 22 to 27 in Mississippi grew anywhere from 2.4 to 13.6 percent, which is consistent with numbers that show Mississippi students tend to live and work in Mississippi after completing college. These numbers are available at LifeTracks — www.lifetracks.ms.gov — Mississippi’s official data system.
Now, the number of people ages 28 to 30 in Mississippi shrank between 2010 and 2016, but this reflects the LifeTracks finding that 10 percent of Mississippi college graduates leave the state after five years in the Mississippi economy. This is consistent with national data showing 10 percent of this age group with college degrees tend to leave their state. The good news is that the number of people ages 31 to 35 in Mississippi has grown between 2010 and 2016, suggesting older millennials might come back and work in Mississippi.
Before jumping to conclusions about any statistics, you should ask a couple of questions: Are the data appropriate for what we want to measure? Have we considered all possible alternatives that might explain potential conclusions?
How data are presented can have a significant impact on the image of the state. If we buy into gloom-and-doom conclusions, how can we ever convince our children to live and work in Mississippi? When telling the full story, we cannot ignore the power of data or the responsibility that goes with it.
Domenico “Mimmo” Parisi is executive director of the National Strategic Planning & Analysis Research Center (nSPARC) at Mississippi State University and professor of sociology. Visit www.nsparc.msstate.edu.