/Meet Mimmo Parisi, the political powerbroker who uses ‘alternative data’ to paint a rosier picture of Mississippi

Meet Mimmo Parisi, the political powerbroker who uses ‘alternative data’ to paint a rosier picture of Mississippi

He listened with his arms crossed as Jake McGraw (public policy coordinator at William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation) presented his findings about the state’s “brain-drain” crisis. According to Census data, Mississippi is losing the most millennials of any state in the nation. This amounts to about half of the population of Tupelo between 2010 and 2016. Experts have concluded that Mississippi’s state’s migration is indicative of low quality life factors. Parisi lowered his head and massaged his forehead with his hand. Parisi lowered his head and massaged his brow with his hand when it was Parisi’s turn. Parisi stated that the state is not suffering from “brain drain”. In other words, Parisi said, “The number is accurate, but the narrative lies.” Parisi also spoke to Mississippi Today, referring to McGraw’s presentation. Parisi’s job it to create narratives. Parisi is the founder and CEO of NSPARC. This academic research center has collected countless pieces of confidential data from different state agencies over the past decade about Mississippi residents. It includes information such as where they went to college, whether they were eligible for food stamps or unemployment benefits, their income, and much more. Parisi wants to use “alternative data” in order to create reports that are supported by the academic heft and research power of a major university. This will help Mississippi attract businesses and make it look bigger and better than other national statistics and rankings. Parisi stated that alternative data “is basically what now will drive any form of economic development.” “It’s not (Washington D.C.) telling us our unemployment figures.” Parisi’s alternative data was praised by elected officials such as Gov. Phil Bryant has long complained about the negative portrayal of Mississippi by news media. Parisi’s research centre is the only one with the most complete database of Mississippi, so it’s easy to argue that he’s the expert on Mississippi’s story. Parisi has shown that he is intent on focusing only on positive statistics. He also demonstrated his willingness to source and provide data to achieve a specific goal or support agenda. Parisi disagreed with McGraw’s “brain-drain” research but did not question McGraw’s data sources and methodology. McGraw explained to Mississippi Today that the conclusion leads to the conclusion that McGraw has stated repeatedly that he is not in business of reaching. This scene is representative of Parisi’s work, which includes shaping public policies in early childhood education and workforce development. The fact that the quasi-governmental entity he runs at Mississippi State, which is estimated to cost $15 million, is compounded by the fact that it is funded primarily by state agencies that report to the governor. NSPARC quietly grew to be one of the most powerful economic policymaking agencies, with Bryant’s support. Parisi has become one of the most influential people in state government. Parisi was most recently the chair of the State Early Childhood Advisory Council. He also served as Mississippi’s representative to the White House Task Force for STEM. Parisi is also a member the State Workforce Investment Board. The Governor’s Workforce Cabinet, Southern Regional Education Board, and the National Advisory Panel for Higher Education. Another way to put it: “The keeper of data is the Kingmaker because they have the data and no one else has it,” stated Pete Walley, a retired state economist who assisted in the transfer of data from Institutes of Higher Learning to NSPARC. “…He was kind of a powerbroker once he had all that data.” Walley said. Parisi founded the National Strategic Planning and Analysis Research Center in 2005. It was the center that developed the first state-wide longitudinal data system. This version is now available in almost all 50 states. The centralized system is housed at NSPARC’s Mississippi State data centre and stores three terabytes worth of information about Mississippians who received services from any of the state agencies, colleges, or universities. These are the state departments for health, education and corrections, which oversee Mississippi’s public assistance programs. Three terabytes is equivalent to roughly 750 million pages (assuming that a single-page plain text file takes four kilobytes). The state calls the database LifeTracks. It combines datasets to map people’s lives over time. The ultimate goal is to assess the effectiveness of state services. This method was encouraged by the federal government to be adopted in 2006. NSPARC is funded by federal grants through the Mississippi Department of Education. This grant allows NSPARC to run LifeTracks which were established in 2013 by Mississippi lawmakers. Mississippi has received $17.5million from the federal Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems Grant Program since 2009. The Legislature also contributed $8.2 million to the education budget. Most of this money went to NSPARC to help start and maintain LifeTracks. According to the Legislative Budget Office, these payments were initially set at $1.8million per year in 2014, but fell to $1.6million in 2017, $800,000.000 in 2018, and $400,000 in 2019. Bryant suggested funding LifeTracks at $1.8million in fiscal year 2019. However, it wasn’t fulfilled. LifeTracks offers several datasets on K-12, community college, and public university education. These include the percentage of high school and college graduates who are employed in Mississippi one, three, and five years after graduation. The public is not allowed to access the entire database, even though it is funded by taxpayers. Additional analysis can only be requested by “stakeholders” and “policymakers”. The state statute states that the system will give stakeholders and policymakers access to data about state residents, from birth to the workforce, to help drive accountability and investment decisions. The law created a LifeTracks board consisting of representatives from each state agency that provides data to the system. This board voted to award NSPARC the contract to be the official state data clearinghouse. According to minutes of the December 18, 2013, meeting, NSPARC is not a private vendor and therefore did not need to undergo a bidding process. According to the LifeTracks website where minutes are posted, the board has not met since 2017 and only met once in 2017. According to the LifeTracks governing boards rules and regulations, NSPARC replaces each person’s social security number with a unique 10-digit number. This number is then linked across all participating state agencies. This allows the system to cross-reference data to allow it to track people over time. The rules stated that other internal identification numbers will be retained in the transferred data to facilitate matching and data validation. This also allows government entities to use LifeTracks information for their internal purposes. Parisi stated that all data is completely stripped of any identifying information such as names or birth dates before anyone outside the state agencies can view it. Parisi stated that NSPARC researchers create various reports on behalf of state officials. Mississippi Today asked for LifeTracks reports in the fall of 2013. However, Mark Henry, the board chair of the Mississippi Department of Employment Security, was denied the request. Henry is the director of Mississippi’s Workers’ Compensation Commissioner. Bryant recently appointed Henry as its head. The news agency requested reports that compared the earnings of those who quit public assistance programs after receiving work training. Henry stated that he had spoken with the attorney general’s offices and that reporters are not considered “stakeholders”. Mississippi Today interviewed Henry for an hour. Henry explained the LifeTracks request process, but could not provide details about NSPARC’s data retrieval and handling. NSPARC was referred those questions to Henry. Multiple interview requests were denied by NSPARC and Mississippi State University for this story. A spokesperson for the attorney general told Mississippi Today that the office couldn’t provide a list with LifeTracks applicants because it is the board who determines who qualifies as a stakeholder and not the attorney general. Records show that LifeTracks delivered reports to non-governmental entities in the past, including fiscal year 2018. Raul Fletes is the Mississippi Community College Board’s assistant executive director for research effectiveness and effectiveness. He said that NSPARC’s essential role as the state’s data clearinghouse makes it an attractive target for cynicism. I think there is always some jealousy when an agency has so many data. Fletes stated that knowledge is power and data is power. Fletes said, “Being a data person myself, if there isn’t an agency like this, how can you put together a reliable plan? How will you create a reliable report that demonstrates your strengths and weaknesses? It can be used to do evil. Yes. It can. But, I believe there are enough checks to ensure that the data is being properly used.” NSPARC is a growing agency that employs 125 people, including data analysts and programmers as well as researchers and graduate assistants. NSPARC’s annual operating income from sponsored research has more than doubled in the past five years as it has expanded its role in the backend operations state agencies. These include the Mississippi Department of Employment Security which administers unemployment benefits. It also helps people find work. NSPARC received $5.5million and $3.5million from the departments of human services and employment-security in 2018, respectively. This compares to $3 million, $82,500, and 2014, Mississippi Today discovered after Mississippi Today made an official records request. Mississippi Today also received revenue reports that Mississippi Today obtained from Mississippi Today. The report was based on a nearly one-month-long back-and-forth with the university. NSPARC also has received nearly $1 million to $2.3 million from the Mississippi Department of Education every year since 2014. This money was used mainly to operate LifeTracks. NSPARC provides data analysis, software research and development, technical support and technical support to these agencies under the Workforce Innovation & Opportunity Act Combined Plan that the state submitted to the federal government. According to the plan, the ultimate goal is to combine the services and case management from each agency so that, “from the moment one begins the education and workforce system he or she will have the necessary tools to select and pursue a career path that is relevant to current labor markets.” NSPARC created an online job portal called Mississippi Works that is similar to Indeed or Monster. This was Bryant’s signature workforce initiative. Bryant’s claim of 42,000 jobs across the state is based on this tool. It is harder to see the results of these taxpayer-funded purchases. The number of people that the state has helped to find employment since the NSPARC job-matching program was created has remained steady every year. According to the oldest annual report, 30,686 people were placed in jobs by the employment security department out of 64,508 who registered for services. While the number of people who signed up for the services jumped to 266,777 the next year, the actual number of people who found jobs through the service was not. In 2015, the year Mississippi Works was launched, 208,596 people had registered, and the employment security department had placed 31,484 people in jobs. According to the most recent annual report, 26268 people were placed by the department in 2016, which is about 13% of all those who registered. The contract between the department of Employment Security and NSPARC to “provide ongoing expertise in the management, analysis, and interpretation of administrative records” is online. However, the agreement between the human service department with NSPARC cannot be accessed online. Mississippi Today submitted a records request to NSPARC for the agreement between the human service department and NSPARC. They also need the weekly and quarterly performance reports NSPARC has to send to the department of Employment Security as part of the contract. The records are still not available to the news organization. NSPARC also works for other organizations, such as the Mississippi Manufacturer’s Association. This influential trade and lobbying organization is one example of NSPARC. NSPARC prepared a report for the manufacturer’s organization in 2015 to demonstrate the benefits of eliminating franchise taxes, which the state legislatures voted to eliminate in 2016. The report was presented to legislators during their consideration of law. It predicted increases in personal income ($288million), new jobs (3,514) and gross domestic product ($282million) as well as new income tax revenue ($28million). NSPARC’s franchise-tax report did not address whether the expected benefits would outweigh the budget losses resulting from the elimination of tax. Senator Hob Bryan (D-Amory) spoke out against the legislation. He even offered a tongue in cheek amendment that would have ordered a new study. If it predicted less revenue than what the NSPARC report had estimated, it would have penalized Mississippi State. It failed. “I am concerned that this extreme economic view is being presented as the opinion of Mississippi State University, and it is being funded by people with an agenda. Bryan stated that all of this is troubling. “… You research for the truth and not for the answers that your funder wants.” After the law was passed, the State Economist estimated that the policy would result in the state budget taking a hit. According to the August 2016 Economic and Fiscal Analysis, entitled Economic and Fiscal Analysis on Four Tax Policy Changes in Taxpayer Pay Raise Act 2016, “While it is impossible to estimate the impact of eliminating the franchise tax and the consequent increase in tax revenue, such an investment would bring the General Fund into balance, we don’t expect it to be enough to recover the revenue lost.” In FY 2015, there were more than $260 million in transfers to the General Fund. Jay Moon, the president and CEO of Mississippi Manufacturer’s Association, said that making up this much revenue is a very difficult task. “… Moon previously worked for the Mississippi Development Authority. He stated that Mississippi’s franchise tax was one of the most expensive in the country and made it difficult to recruit employers. What revenue loss are we causing because businesses don’t move here or don’t expand? Moon stated that it was difficult to predict the future because you don’t know. He said that economic forecasting cannot answer all questions. Moon was the first chairperson of the LifeTracks board that awarded the initial contract to NSPARC. He said he has been working with the agency for more than a decade. He said, “I know the quality professors that work there.” “They do what they do based on data. They don’t manipulate the data in any way.
McGraw stated that the think tank is not a university-based research center but a think tank. “…There’s a lot of people who want what they’ve come up with and so they’ll make it into gospel.” The one-page “Mississippi Economy Scorecard”, NSPARC published in November, looks very different from the materials produced by the state economist’s offices recently. NSPARC’s report highlights positive statistics such as Mississippi’s historically low unemployment rate. This is a Georgetown University report from last year that ranks Mississippi No. 2. Mississippi Works was used by more than 200,000 people to find a job. According to the report, Mississippi’s participation in the workforce is approximately 80 percent. This is consistent with the national trend. The February presentation by a state economist included a ranking of all the states based on this measurement. Walley, who resigned as state economist in 2018, said that “We” (the state economic’s office) have always been straight up and stated, “Here are facts, these numbers are the best we have.” Walley stated that the governor no longer turned to the state economics office for information because they didn’t want to play the partisan game. Walley stated that “we produced many reports that the governor looked at and asked, ‘Why did this happen?’ or if he had told him to do so. When you get to the bottom of it, whoever is in charge has a worldview. They have an agenda. Darrin Webb, Mississippi Today’s current state economist, said that NSPARC uses data other than the traditional federal reporting and public data like the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Webb stated that NSPARC often uses different data than the traditional federal reporting. Parisi also submitted a special report to Gov. in January 2018. This was after reports were published on Mississippi’s high level of millennial migration. Bryant used the same census data for the overall population to downplay this issue. Parisi used the raw numbers of domestic migration to minimize Mississippi’s net loss in population between 2016 and 2017. He compared it with all other states, regardless their size. Bryant posted a link to his report on Facebook last May. Bryant stated that “Here’s the facts, supported with data that refute the lazy Fake News narrative regarding Mississippi’s population.” Multiple requests for interviews regarding this story were not answered by the governor’s office. Parisi published his findings in an op-ed published by several newspapers in 2017. He stated that “how data are presented can have significant impact on the state’s image.” He said, “If we believe in gloom and doom, how will we ever convince our children that Mississippi is a good place to live and work?” Parisi claimed that some of Mississippi’s population decline was due to a decline among teenage pregnancies. He attributed this to the state leadership’s “aggressive” policies, such as adopting abstinence centered sex education. However, the population in question was already born and would not be affected by a recent drop in births. McGraw stated, “That’s an entirely different conversation and it’s intentionally separate.” “…It’s still a mystery to me that a conversation about data can quickly turn into a battle for broader values with the head the leading data research centre in the state. McGraw also stated that while the native Mississippians are leaving, the other half of the problem is that the state isn’t making up the difference by attracting outsiders. McGraw stated that Mississippi’s low ranking in economic well-being, education and health outcomes is the main reason. Parisi, who had just completed his Ph.D. at Pennsylvania State University in 1998, reflected on why he decided to move to Mississippi. Parisi recalled how his friends and colleagues warned him about Mississippi’s racism and prejudice. He found a place that he felt at home. Parisi stated that he was unable to appreciate the beauty of the state when he arrived. “There’s no way that we can win.” I don’t understand why people are so negative about Mississippi. I don’t get it. This place is my favorite. It is a beautiful house. Wonderful people surround me. I live a happy life. Parisi said that she had never witnessed discrimination in her life. “…We are a state where we often forget to tell the world that we’re not the same as we used to be.” According to the February state economist’s presentation, Mississippi’s economy has been on the rise, but it is still improving slower than other states, despite being in the same economic situation since 2008. In 2018, the state had a historic low unemployment rate of 4.7%, which is still among the highest in the country. According to the MIT living wages calculator, nearly one in five Mississippians live below the poverty level. The median Mississippi household income of $42,000 is less than a minimum wage for a single parent. Parisi, NSPARC director, earned $234,000 in 2019, five-and-a-half times the state’s median household income. In 2018, he received $9,000 more. Parisi will not receive the Mississippi State check for the following year. The new right-wing Italian government appointed Parisi to head the National Agency for Active Labor Policies. This is also the country’s public employment agency, known as Anpal. Parisi will be taking a year-long, unpaid sabbatical to leave the university in order to accept the position in Italy. This includes overseeing a new $8 billion workforce and income project aimed to reduce the 8.4 percent poverty rate in the country, which is the highest since over a decade according to ISTAT national statistics bureau. Parisi plans to use the knowledge he has gained in Mississippi over the past decade to help his native Italy. After visiting Italy last year, he was impressed by the way he described how his job-matching and data analysis software had helped improve the state’s workforce development. His innovation has been called the “miracle in Mississippi” by newspapers in Italy.