MISSISSIPPI Gov. William F. Winter is tired of having his state ranked at the bottom of every list: lowest state per capita income, lowest educational achievement, lowest acceptance rate into the armed forces. The only records that the state sets are for things no one wants: illiteracy, infant mortality, birth defects and teen pregnancy. Like every other politician, Gov. Winter looks to economic growth as the way out of his state's dilemma. The difference is that he is proposing more rather than less public spending to promote that growth.
Mississippi's economic and social retardation cannot be blamed on an overly generous public sector. Its welfare benefit, at $120 a month for a family of four, is still the lowest in the nation. Teachers' salaries and almost every other measure of public service you can mention are close to rock bottom. Mississippi's politicians have traditionally argued that a meager public sector was unavoidable. Because the state was poor, it couldn't afford anything better. Because much of the population was black, support for generally available public services -- such as education -- was weak: to avoid integration, the state even went so far as to abolish compulsory school attendance in the 1950s.
Instead, the state relied on low wages and a plentiful labor force to attract manufacturing away from the high-wage, high-tax states of the North and Midwest. Although gains have recently slowed, over the last 20 years that strategy did narrow the income gap between Mississippi and the rest of the nation. As the state moved away from its segregationist image and its plantation-based economy, a prosperous middle class grew up in the cities. Now the governor and other new leaders are questioning whether Mississippi can continue to grow if it bases its economy on the type of low-skill, low-wage jobs increasingly being taken over by the developing nations of the world.
If Mississippi wants to keep up in a high-technology economy, Gov. Winter has decided, the state is going to have to invest in the talents of its citizens. That's why he is pushing his state legislature to adopt a $90 million tax increase, along with an ambitious program of educational reform. There is a lesson in this for more than Mississippi. Historically, the states -- and nations--that have lagged have been those in which a wealthy minority has refused to invest its riches in the larger public good. Those that have prospered have not stinted on public investments in either the physical or human resources that make commerce prosper.