By Christopher Young,
During last year’s regular legislative session there were 2,981 bills introduced and 374 were approved by the Governor and seven became law without his approval, per the Senate Summary that was published May 4, 2022, and also includes data from the House (http://www.legislature.ms.gov/media/1289/senate-summary_2022.pdf).
Thinking so often about the high levels of poverty and homelessness in Mississippi, the poorest state in the country, it seemed like a good idea to see what bills were signed into law that were tied to public health and welfare, and there were 14 found.
In brief summary, SB2095 enacted the Mississippi Medical Cannabis Act. SB2421 gave grants to physicians who were recruited under a certain program. SB2725 directs that healthcare providers give patient records to patients within 30 days of request. SB2818 – related to Mississippi Medical Cannabis Act. SB2820 was the COVID-19 Hospital Expanded Capacity Program. SB2899 requires health insurance plans or programs with employers of less than 100 people to offer benefits for the treatment of mental illness.
Bills signed into law from the House were, HB20 “Cole’s Law” which prohibits discrimination against recipients of an anatomical gifts based on any disabilities the recipient may have. HB 232 adds several fentanyl related substances to Schedule I (no legitimate medical use), as well as other substances to Schedules II, III, IV and V. HB365 establishes a Mississippi Rural Hospital Loan Program. HB424 enacts an Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology Interstate Compact. HB732 states the intent of the legislature to comply with the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020 – the 9-8-8 hotline and designates a study commission that must report its finding to the legislature and the governor by November 1, 2023. HB927 ensures that all testing of newborns is in accord with the Recommended Uniform Screening Panel. HB1056 enacts a Professional Counseling Compact with other states.
There were fourteen new laws – impacting all Mississippians under the heading of public health and welfare. While none of these new laws spoke directly to poverty and homelessness, they do seem to represent progress, which is so needed here. Who knows, maybe there were some that didn’t make it out of committee and could be attempted again in upcoming legislative sessions.
Poverty, in a country as wealthy as ours, is difficult to grasp. Many say our wealth gap in the United States is both the cause and effect. In Mississippi that could be true as well. Do we see any of our elected officials at the capitol demanding an end to poverty and homelessness? Perhaps if they are doing fine in their own lives, they are less concerned with those who are not.
When it comes to household wealth in the United States, the Federal Reserve maintains data. They reported in 1990 that white households owned 90.7% of the country’s wealth, with black households owning 3.8%, and Hispanics 2.1%. Thirty years later, in 2019, the numbers were 85.5% white, 4.2% black, and 3.1% Hispanic.
For those that do not have that wealth, there is often more to the story. An ongoing US Census Bureau Pulse Survey in the first two weeks of February found that 36% of consumers nationwide are finding it “somewhat difficult” or “very difficult” to pay their usual bills. That’s up from 25% one year ago. Mississippi has the greatest share of residents straining to pay their bills – 53% – another last place finish for the Hospitality State, and no substantive action.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that six months into the pandemic, “twenty-three million adults (10.5%) reported that their household didn’t get enough to eat, and an estimated 1 in 4 renters with children lived in a household that was behind on rent.” The numbers double for black and Latino residents across the nation. In Mississippi, 294,000 adults – 16% – report that their households don’t have enough to eat, and no action, despite state coffers being full to the brim. Welfareinfo.org indicates that Mississippi’s poverty rate is 51.56% higher than the national average – easily defining us as the poorest state in the nation.
Mississippi’s Continuums of Care report 1,100 people were homelessness in January 2020. Each year in January, a nationwide Point-In-Time count is conducted over a twenty-four-hour period. Homelessness coalitions send workers to canvas designated areas and collect data on sheltered and unsheltered persons experiencing homelessness. It is difficult to find any data for the last three years in Mississippi. It’s not practical to imagine the number of persons experiencing homelessness has declined, especially considering the impact of the pandemic, joblessness, escalating housing costs and untreated mental illness.
In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, EVICTED, Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond says this about a home: “We have affirmed provision in old age, twelve years of education, and basic nutrition to be the right of every citizen because we have recognized that human dignity depends on the fulfillment of these fundamental human needs. And it is hard to argue that housing is not a fundamental human need. Decent, affordable housing should be a basic human right for everybody in this country. The reason is simple: without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.”
The HOME Coalition has been around for thirty years and has been one of the most effective, locally driven tools to help states and communities improve access to safe, decent and affordable housing. From 1992-2021 our neighbor Louisiana has invested $620 million in these efforts; Tennessee has invested $617 million; and Alabama has invested $522 million. Mississippi has invested $324 million. The Mississippi HOME Corporation Board has nine members appointed by the governor and lt. governor, all but one is male, and all but one is white.
Until we can leverage the spirit of basic human regard in our elected officials and community partners toward minimizing poverty and homelessness in our state, we will remain last, and suffering will be in abundance in what is said to be the most church-attending state in the nation – the Hospitality State.
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