It is common knowledge that Mississippi is one of the sickest states in the nation. Along with SEC football, comfort food and our unpleasant past, Mississippi’s poor health outcomes must be one of the most widely held conceptions about the state. The pandemic has only highlighted the disparities in access to healthcare, and Mississippi continues to be the state that others look to as an example of what not to do. Mississippi does not have to rank last on nearly every health indicator. It is neither necessary nor unavoidable that our friends and fellow community members must continue dying of preventable conditions. It is merely the consequence of many conscious and repeated decisions made at the state level. Just like in so many other areas of policy and governance, the state government has abandoned its citizens when it comes to health care and wellbeing.
Take, for example, Mississippi’s youth sexual education program. In 2011, Mississippi’s state legislature passed a bill mandating sexual education curriculum be taught in all public schools for the first time. This promising, albeit embarrassingly late, step is overshadowed by the curriculum’s intentionally poor design. The state bill requires parents to opt-in rather than out of the program, a purposeful barrier between students and the medical information they need. The bill also prohibits instructors from demonstrating how to apply contraceptives or use condoms. Furthermore, it mandates that schools teach the famously ineffective abstinence only or “abstinence plus” curriculums.
It is not difficult to see the natural consequences of Mississippi’s sex education policies. Young people in Mississippi experience astronomically high rates of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy compared to the rest of the country, and survey data indicate that Mississippi has the second-highest teen pregnancy rate, the fifth highest chlamydia rate and the fourth highest gonorrhea rate in the nation.
Mississippi’s state legislators are willfully harming the sexual health outcomes of our state’s youth through inadequate and ill-informed policy, and sexual health is far from the only area where Mississippi is failing its citizens. A brief glance at the State Health Department’s website offers the following statistics: Fourteen percent of Mississippians have Type 2 diabetes, 70% are overweight, 82% take medicine for high blood pressure, and Mississippi infants face a mortality rate of nearly double the national average. The Health Department is clear about the cause of Mississippi’s abnormal health outcomes: social determinants primarily tied to lack of access to healthcare and services.
While experts have identified access as the determining factor in many of Mississippi’s health problems, the state government seems determined to only worsen the problem. Mississippi is one of only twelve states that have refused to expand Medicaid, a decision that leaves 217,000 Mississippians uninsured. Even more sickening than the blatant disregard for the wellbeing of our state is the fact that Mississippi has seemingly every reason in the world to expand the program. The state has forfeited nearly $2 billion dollars in federal aid so far by refusing expansion, and state spending under the current program is projected to outpace what it would be if Medicaid was expanded.
Whether it is a state sex education curriculum that fails to address the needs of our students or the refusal to extend vital access to health care to our low-income residents, the state government of Mississippi is abandoning its citizens. Legislators in Jackson have access to all of the information and statistics cited in this article, yet they choose to write and implement policy that blatantly disregards the suffering of their constituents. We should not accept Mississippi’s health outcomes as inevitable and instead demand our government act in the interest of its citizens.
Katherine Broten is a junior majoring in public policy leadership and economics from Farmington, New Mexico.