JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — For the third year in a row, the Census Bureau estimates that Mississippi's population fell, as more people moved away from the Magnolia State than moved in.
The estimate, released Wednesday, shows that Mississippi lost about 1,300 people from July 1, 2016, to July 1, 2017, falling to 2.98 million people.
While Mississippi had 6,500 more births than deaths during the year, the state lost almost 8,000 people to out-migration. Mississippi is the only southern state besides West Virginia seeing outmigration. Only West Virginia and Illinois have lost population for more years in a row.
John Green, a University of Mississippi professor who directs the school's Center for Population Studies, says people are leaving Mississippi in search of better opportunities.
"If I had to argue one prevailing reason for net out-migration from Mississippi, I would focus on the search for socio-economic opportunities and wellbeing," Green wrote in an email.
Mississippi's recovery from the recession has been one of the nation's weakest . Although the unemployment rate has hit a record low this year, employer payrolls and the size of the overall economy have yet to straggle back to where they were in 2008. Among those who appear most likely to take flight are people who are young and well-educated.
According to a report prepared last year for the College Board, only a few more than half of the graduates of Mississippi's eight public universities are working in the state five years after graduation. Those who earn degrees in high-paying fields such as engineering, math, and physical sciences are among the most likely to leave.
Mississippi was one of eight states estimated to lose population, along with neighboring Louisiana. The state with the largest percentage decline was Wyoming. Idaho grew the fastest, percentage-wise. Estimates show Mississippi has lost about 8,000 people since its population peaked just short of 3 million in 2014. Arkansas, which had 25,000 fewer people than Mississippi in 2014, now has 20,000 more.
Tim Mask, a Jackson advertising agency executive who's active in trying to reduce Mississippi's "brain drain" said he's alarmed because the people who are leaving are those who would earn high salaries, taking potential tax revenue with them and leaving behind an older, poorer population to pay for the state's needs.
Mask is pushing legislation that would rebate some or all of a recent college graduate's state income taxes if they stayed in Mississippi for five years. He hopes to rebate the entire amount tax free to anyone who buys a house or becomes an owner of a closely-held business.
"We need to look at it not just from a standpoint of retaining individuals, but attracting new individuals," Mask said. "We're the only Sunbelt state losing population and if you look at the people we are losing, we need to do something a little more innovative."