WEST POINT — The economy has gotten a lot better for Era Walker. The West Point resident has gone from making $9.75 an hour at a pig farm to $15 an hour at the CalStar Products brick plant in Columbus.
Walker, a 45-year-old mother of three, said she’s “making enough now” to take care of her family.
She’s a beneficiary of the economic policy of incumbent Republicans, including Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves. Authorities offered millions in incentives to bring CalStar to Mississippi.
Bryant, citing an unemployment rate that’s fallen from 8.9 percent when he took office, has been touting his stewardship of Mississippi’s economy.
“The economy, although not where we want it, is trending in the right direction,” he said in an interview. “Those are the kinds of dynamics that we are looking at that indicate really positive growth for the future.”
But Walker, getting her hair styled one Friday in West Point, wasn’t feeling positive. The local economy was hard-hit by industrial closures including the 2007 shutdown of Sara Lee Corp.’s Bryan Foods plant, the town’s longtime anchor. Walker said times remain hard, despite the opening of the first phase of Yokohama Rubber Co.’s tire plant north of town.
“We’ve got people sleeping in their cars right now, who can’t figure out a place to stay,” Walker said.
West Point, in some ways, is Mississippi writ small. The state has made economic progress in the last four years, but less than the nation. Mississippi’s unemployment rate has fallen more slowly, wages have increased only half as fast as elsewhere, employer payrolls have inched forward, and the overall economy has barely grown.
That means the nation’s poorest state is falling further behind the other 49.
“We didn’t get hit as hard as many states in the depth of the recession, but our recovery has been much worse than the other states, much slower,” said state economist Darrin Webb. He said Mississippi’s economy has struggled for the last 15 years and needs strong national growth to pull it ahead.
The number of Mississippians on employer payrolls in September remained 2.6 percent below its prerecession high. Unemployment has fallen from 10.8 percent in March 2010 to 6.1 percent, but pre-2015 declines were driven by a shrinking labor force.
Bryant has focused on industrial recruitment. Mississippi and local governments spent $82 million to incentivize Yokohama’s first phase, scheduled to hire 500 workers. Total state and local incentives, including tax breaks, could total more than $330 million if Yokohama builds four phases and hires 2,000 workers.
Drake Langley, a clerk at downtown’s Kellogg Hardware, said Yokohama construction buoyed sales, an increase that Mayor Robbie Robertson said is shared by businesses citywide.
Tyler Sumner, a computer technician at Digital Impact, said the economy has improved in recent years, but he’s considering moving, saying there are few high-paying jobs locally for computer workers.
“I think people were overly optimistic as to what Yokohama would bring to the city,” Sumner said.