Demographic and political revolutions have and continue to transform The Natural State

by George Jared ([email protected]) 649 views 

There was a time when the rich soil in the Mississippi Delta served as Arkansas’ gold mine. Since it was formed in 1836 through the turn of the next century, the state generated enormous wealth from vast farms in the state’s east and southern regions.

Times have changed.

Journalist, author, and political commentator Rex Nelson told around 500 guests at the annual Arkansas State University Agribusiness Conference on Wednesday the state has been transformed by two phenomena in recent years – the Republican party take over, and the population swing to the north and west regions of the state.

“It strikes you what a change we went through in such a short amount of time,” said Nelson, who is now employed as senior vice president and director of corporate communications at Pine Bluff-based Simmons First National Corp.

During the 1950 census, counties in the Delta Region, including Mississippi County, had twice as many people as they have now. From 1940 to 1960 Arkansas had the highest amount of population flight, per capita, in the country. The culprit? Mechanization, the Great Depression, and better farming practices, he said. Large farms early in the state’s history required enormous numbers of laborers, he said. When the Great Depression devastated the world economy many “Arkies” left their homes and traveled west to find work, Nelson said. Most didn’t return.

Rex Nelson

After World War II, veterans received the GI Bill and many went to college, which meant they would not return to the farmlands. The national economy grew significantly in a short period of time, and the car and steel industries boomed luring more workers from the impoverished South. To cope with the loss of labor, farmers found more efficient ways to grow crops and new technologies were invented. Population flight out of the Delta was sealed.

“It’s your guys’ fault,” Nelson said to a chorus of laughter. “You’re too good at what you do.”

As time progressed, the state’s population centers have gravitated to the Northwest and central parts of the state. From 2000 to 2010, an estimated 39 counties gained in population and 36 lost residents. People left the eastern and southern counties to find work in the north and western ones. When the population drops, the economic outputs decline, education test scores suffer, and the tax base dwindles.

It’s been whispered on the capitol steps more than once by some, Arkansas’ economic, education, other rankings among all states would be vastly improved if 15 or so Delta counties were removed. But, more than 100 years ago lawmakers probably thought removing the northwestern section of the state would improve those same numbers – an ironic shift, he said. It’s now the economic engine for the state, he added.

There are ways to improve population growth in eastern and southern Arkansas. One way is to scrap a 1960s model for attracting industries, he said. Many communities after the population flight used a similar model to lure industries. A town would buy a plot of land, and hook utilities to it. A spec building might be built, and local tax credits and other incentives would be offered, he said.

During this period this model was successful, but now it’s not, he said.

“Quit chasing a plant that will never arrive … a 700 job plant is not going to happen,” he said.

Instead of investing in potential industrial sites and incentives, communities need to invest in their local school districts, hospitals, parks, roads, and other community development projects. Quality of life is becoming the key ingredient in economic development, he said.

Another major change has occurred in politics. In 2010, The Democrats controlled five of the six seats the state holds in Congress; the party controlled all seven state elected offices including the governor’s office; and the party held large majorities in the Arkansas General Assembly. Within a few years, state Republicans overwhelmed the floundering state Democratic Party and has an even firmer grip on the state.

Nelson, who worked in the administration of Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), didn’t offer an explanation of how this happened or how long he thinks it will be before the state could have two viable parties. Before he ended his talk, he gave one more piece of advice about the population shifts. It could also apply to the political climate change, too.

“It’s crucial for our future … that we don’t become two states within one state,” he said.