Until you’ve lived in and around poverty, until you’ve actually experienced it first hand, you really can’t have any understanding of what it means, what it looks like, and the problems associated with getting out of poverty.
For as long as I can remember I’ve heard people of all political stripes opine about ways to effectively fight poverty. Some of these prescriptions border on the ridiculous, others are not only ridiculous, but insulting and judgmental.
If there were an easy answer to solving the problems of poverty, it would have already been done. But rather than seeking answers to addressing the problem of poverty, we’ve chosen to double down on making the problem worse. The evidence is striking, as is the manner in which we’ve chosen to ignore that very same evidence.
Even though addressing poverty is hard, that doesn’t mean it’s outside our ability. It is within our grasp if we would just reach out for it, rather than making value judgements against the poor, which is what I see time and time again in our community.
Poverty has been with us since man began organizing into tribes. Even the Old Testament addresses poverty, and commands us to help the poor.
For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.
– Deuteronomy 15:11
Despite this commandment, not only does poverty persist, it is expanding in our community.
On Friday the CA revealed a Census report that names Memphis the most impoverished MSA in the US. For those of us who have been studying the devastating impact of the current financial crisis, and the policies that helped create it, this comes as no surprise. Students of history could have probably predicted this event, based on past policies that led to the Great Depression, had they not been in denial that such a thing could happen in America. It has happened, and it is directly related to choices we’ve made over the past 40 years.
But while the current economic conditions have made poverty more widespread, the reality is poverty has been a consistent problem in our community since the founding of our County. Indeed, as I noted in this post, even the city’s own history page details the impact of poverty over the nearly 200 year history of Memphis and Shelby County.
There is no “silver bullet” to end poverty, but there are a series of policy decisions that can be made across all levels of government to reduce it. Enacting those policy decisions across the various levels of government that have a direct impact on people here in Shelby County is a bit like herding cats, but it is precisely what must be done.
But before those policies can be enacted we have to change the way we think about and act toward those who suffer from poverty. This is not a “bootstraps” problem, as some on the ideological right would characterize it. The notion that people should somehow “just work harder” to elevate themselves from the grips of poverty is an inherently ignorant position. By framing poverty as “someone else’s problem” as is so often the case, we ignore the commandment from God quoted above, and pass judgment on individuals whose circumstances we cannot even imagine. Considering the prevalence of this misguided and judgmental position, its no wonder we’re not making greater gains against poverty.
Saturday the Commercial Appeal published an editorial on the poverty situation in Memphis. As of this writing, the majority of comments on that editorial are informed by the very same ignorant position I mentioned above. Unfortunately, this ignorance is not due to the lack of experience with poverty, certainly you can hardly turn your head in this community and not see it, but rather a blind self-interest that seeks nothing more than to defer responsibility from the choices we as a community make, to the people who suffer most from those very policies. This “blame the victim” position causes me to seriously question the humanity of the people who espouse it.
Since the founding of our nation, we as a country have taken on big things, and largely succeeded. It is in this success that we built the first real sustainable middle class. But while we built it, based primarily on key investments in education, infrastructure and research, among other things, over the past 40 years we have effectively departed from this recipe for success, instead choosing to reduce the level of investment, at the expense of the middle class and the poor, and to the benefit of those who need the least. We were told that this would lead to prosperity for all. We were told this again and again, and despite these assurances it hasn’t happened. Despite this reality, many of us hold on to this position as if it were a savior, even though it has led to a series of devastating outcomes for a huge segment of the population.At the Federal level, income inequality has expanded exponentially, with the top 20% making huge gains while the rest of the population experiences wage stagnation. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the majority of it comes from shifting the burden of funding the government from the top income earners to the middle class. This policy, which saw statutory income tax rates for the highest earners cut by 50%, and effective rates cut by 66% has not only placed undue burdens on the middle and working class, but also negatively impacted our ability to make investments in the very things that made America the global innovation and economic leader that we once were.
Of course, this reality is easily drowned out by persistent cries that our problem is spending. This position is not only ridiculous, but also ignores history. Government investment in infrastructure, education, research, and more has been the key economic driver of progress. Without these investments we wouldn’t have been able to expand from our original 13 states, across this great nation, from sea to shining sea. Of course, history is easy enough to ignore.
Increases in blight, poverty, infant mortality, homelessness, and decreases in educational attainment and income are the fruits of the decisions we’ve made over the past 40 years. We’ve chosen to divest our financial resources from the people who stand to benefit most to the people who need it least, the “job creators” who are now sitting on nearly $1,000,000,000,000 ($1 trillion) in cash rather than investing it in the future. A large chunk of that money can be found right here in Tennessee.
There are, of course, a multitude of policies at the Federal and State levels that negatively impact our ability to fight poverty locally. Correcting the vast majority of those policies are out of our reach at this moment, due to issues that are too numerous to mention. Despite these policies, there are things we can do on a local level to not only combat poverty, but the conditions that sustain it. Some of those policies are underway, others have yet to be implemented.
Over the past few years, the Wharton Administration has sought to fight the conditions that sustain poverty. These programs, from the campaign to end blight, and homelessness, to more recent efforts to help lift people out of poverty. I understand there are many who feel these efforts are half-hearted or inadequate. Some feel these initiatives are offset by other actions of the administration. I get it. However, no matter your position on how much or little the City should or could do, these efforts are more than what was happening before. From that perspective, they should be not only supported, but we should seek ways to expand them.
The City government cannot embark on this project alone. Without the active participation of the County and State governments, any effort made by the city will be hamstrung by a lack of resources. Indeed, this is one of the many reasons I support the Metro Charter effort last year. From my perspective, merging City and County governments puts us in a better position to fight poverty and other conditions associated with poverty by removing the continual finger-pointing that exists between the two governments. This, of course, didn’t happen for a lot of reasons including but not limited to short-term self-interest and a belief that policy and outcome are somehow disconnected, both of which are ultimately misguided.
Despite this, the County has a role to play in working to fight poverty and the conditions that maintain poverty in our county beyond merely maintaining property they own. The Shelby County environmental court should seek to step up efforts to help those who lack the resources to maintain their property and hold those accountable who do, but choose not to.
The hard truth is a great deal of blight in poverty stricken areas of this community comes not from individuals who have been foreclosed or who are too poor to take care of their property, but from individuals of greater means, who have the money, and reap the financial rewards of renting out their property yet choose not to maintain it. I drive all over Shelby County, and what’s amazing is when you see a decrepit or blighted home and look up who owns the property, more often than not, that individual owns many other properties in the area. Connecting those dots and enforcing current code is key to not only addressing the problem, but also treating the individuals who are unfortunate enough to have fallen prey to these slum lords with the dignity that they deserve.
How does tackling blight impact poverty? By repairing or removing these nuisances, the living conditions of those who have the misfortune of living around this blight improves. Crime decreases as harbors for criminal activity are removed, which in turn lowers the cost to taxpayers in having to incarcerate these individuals, and increases revenues as property values increase. It is a long-term investment, but one that has to be made if we want to increase prosperity in our community and decrease the social ills that we all complain about.
Education is another issue that must be addressed to decrease poverty. As the child of educators, I’ve seen the transformative impact that education can have on people. Were it not for the educational opportunities afforded my mother, who grew up in a household that was anything but financially secure, she most likely would have never been able to attend college, which means the chances of my parents ever meeting would have been virtually nil. Needless to say, without these educational opportunities, I might have never been born. So yeah, this means a lot to me.
But rather than evaluating and changing the way we educate our children to reflect the new realities of our economy, we’ve doubled down on a kind of testing that does anything but prepare our children for their future. We’ve monetized this “progress” through performance bonuses that rely on teachers focusing on teaching the test rather than preparing our children for their future, and in doing so we’ve opened the door to fraud which does nothing but further hamper our children’s progress.
Here’s Sir Kenneth Robinson on schools, I’ve posted it before, but it bears repeating.The takeaway from all of this is simple: When we, as a nation, stopped investing in our people, infrastructure and innovation, we started suffering. Those who complain that “out of control spending” is our problem are effectively waging war against those investments and the prosperity they brought to millions of Americans.
Did that investment eradicate poverty? No. Poverty will never be eradicated any more than the common cold or any number of problems that face us as human beings. However, it did limit the reach of poverty. It did lift millions of people out of poverty. It did increase the standard of living for people.
How much of this can we do locally? While there are limits to what City and County governments can do from a strictly budgetary standpoint, there’s plenty that local government can do that rests primarily on, you know, enforcing laws and codes, punish property owners that are taking abusing the Section 8 voucher program, and reaching out to those who have fallen victim to these individuals to ensure public funds are actually doing what they’re supposed to be doing, providing a launch pad for people to find success.
It’s not rocket science, it just requires a consistently determined and focused effort. It also doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t do the things we’re doing now to redevelop areas, but we should look at how that redevelopment will impact the 25% of our population that suffers from poverty. We should look at the infrastructure investments required for that development, and decide if they make sense in the long term.
If we want to fight poverty, and raise the standard of living for our people, we have to stop trying so hard to forget that they’re here by pushing them out of sight, out of mind. We have to move forward with them in mind, and stop ignoring the impact our actions have.
We’ll never be able to grow or build or attract people to this city until we work to help those in poverty lift themselves up. The longer we act like it’s someone else’s problem, the less likely that any resolution will come. It is ultimately in all our interests that we have more success stories in our city. To build that success, we all have to get in the game instead of ignoring the problem.
Partnership: An association of people working together for common goals and aims for their benefit.
Entitlement: A belief that one has a right to something with minimal or no contribution.
One persistent complaint that I hear about Memphis, from people who mostly live outside the city, is that the whole place is corrupt, from the City government and all its divisions to the schools, and the developers and regular joes on the street, depending on ingrained prejudices of the complainer.
I’ll grant you that Memphis has problems, but the notion that Memphis is the home of corruption says more about the speaker than Memphis, and what it says isn’t particularly pretty. Yeah we’ve got a lot of things to address, and yes those issues are challenging, but the lens through which these individuals see the world is one of having no skin in the game.
Memphis is a regional financial and population center. That means that a lot of what goes on in this area, which includes most of west TN, north MS, east AR, and even parts of KY and MO, happens because Memphis has this mantle. From that frame, all those parties, as well as the people of Memphis have skin in the game. The better Memphis does, the better all these surrounding areas will do.
But that’s not the way people have chosen to look at it.
It’s easy to leave. It’s easy to whisk yourself away to your quiet suburban neighborhood in the County, or in DeSoto, or Crittenden and forget how much of your life and livelihood depends on Memphis being the best Memphis it can be. In fact, we’ve made it too easy over the years, expanding infrastructure to accomodate people who have checked out of being a part of the solution, often with little or no effort.
Good government doesn’t just happen, it is intentional. It requires the participation of all those that have a stake in the success of an area. It requires people to serve as checks on power both at the ballot box, and the 1460 days between election days. It requires engagement and an understanding of issues that often fall outside our personal bubbles.
For instance, blight is not a serious problem in my neighborhood just outside of Central Gardens. Sure there are some ugly buildings. There are things that just don’t fit the character and every time I pass them I wonder just what the heck someone was thinking. But I understand that blight be it a half mile away, or 5 miles away, negatively impacts me personally, even if I don’t see it every day. It depresses home values across the city even if it doesn’t exist next door. That, in turn, negatively impacts city tax revenue, which negatively impacts investments we should be making in our city, as well as vital services. All these things impact me, and they impact you too.
But too often we only look at the symptom. “This road is falling apart”, “Crime is too high”, “Traffic is a mess”, whatever the complaint, it is not just constrained to the situation, it is a symptom of a bigger problem.
We, as a people feel entitled to good government, as if it is supposed to just make itself in a vacuum. As if it can judge for us what is good and what is bad with no input. This sense of entitlement is a passive aggressive stance, and one that is ultimately toxic for both the government and the people served by that government.
Certainly, everyone directly involved in government should endeavor to create and maintain “good government”, whatever that is. But people are human, and because we are human we are fallible. Because our institutions, be they governments, or religious institutions, or other associations are made up of people, they are also fallible, and subject to failures as a result.
You don’t have to look far for examples of this fallibility outside of government. The persistent reports of child abuse from clergy, which, despite perception, is not unique to the Catholic church, is an example of institutional failures due to human fallibility.
From that frame, the expectation that people, be they government officials or religious leaders, are just supposed to do the right thing on their own, is entitlement at its worst. Certainly we hope for this, but to expect it is folly. If you want something, you have to go out and make it. The people who benefit most from our institutions understand this.
“But they have too much power, access, etc.” That may be true, but access has become much easier. Rarely does a day go by that I don’t communicate with one of my elected officials. Just the other day I talked to Kemp Conrad, not because I have extraordinary access, but because we engaged each other. Through that engagement, hopefully, we both came away with a better understanding of our perspectives. Through this intentional engagement, my concerns, my perspective was heard. Whether or not it will impact the way Councilman Conrad votes is another issue entirely, but it was heard, and responded to, and in a partnership of over 600,000 people that make up Memphis, its something.
We all have to stop relying on someone else to do it for us. Certainly there are good people out there working for the good of all. People like Brad Watkins with Mid-South Peace and Justice Center who made tackling the homelessness problem in Memphis the cornerstone of MSPJC’s mission. Or Memphis Heritage who lobbied relentlessly to save a historic building from demolition. But these people can’t do this on their own, and neither can government. They need engagement, they need the energy of the people to find the best solutions for the challenges facing the city. They need it all the time, not just at budget time or on election day.
And that’s one of the primary failures of Memphis as an economic and population center. We don’t, as citizens or a government, act as though we’re thinking three moves ahead, we react.
There are some significant problems with relying on a reaction rather than action. First, you’re a step behind. Second, whatever you decide to do or not do is colored by the source of information. So if it’s budget time and people are talking about an issue as if it’s waste, you may decide its waste too, only to later discover that maybe it isn’t. Your lack of direct information has hampered your ability to react making you at least 3 steps behind. Third, and most importantly, because you find yourself this far behind, you’re in a really bad position to work for a positive solution. Now you’re caught in a “just don’t break it” mode, which is like putting your issue on life support.
I talk and think a lot about intention. Intention is a funny thing. We can all intend to do something or be something and not meet the bar set by that intention. But despite our falling below expectations there was some effort. Working intentionally is different. It means you have thought, and talked, and worked and built a coalition to deliberately impact something in some way.
In this city, and across the country I see a lot of people with good intentions, but I don’t see enough people working intentionally, with a specific end in mind…at least not on my side of most issues. And that’s why I think we’ve been losing ground for so long. We haven’t been working intentionally as a group toward specific and tangible goals. Until those goals are defined and expressed to our government, from political leaders to low level government workers, the partnership will remain broken, and so will so much of what could be here in Memphis.
Ed. Note: I’ll have more on ways to get involved and informed in an upcoming post. Stay tuned.
I am, and have been frustrated that this council has really done little to address quality of life issues for our most needy people. It seems that closing community centers and cutting staff is the first thing that comes to mind with this Council when the budget is tight. I understand that payroll is the single largest expense the City has and considering the population contraction, decades of unbridled expansion, and neglect of neighborhoods in the City core, some services may need to be curtailed.
That said, those problems are the direct result of a lack of leadership and direction from City Hall that started long before Herenton and has continued, for the most part. While I understand that 9 members are in their first terms and probably feel these problems started before they came on the scene, I think its clear we’re still caught in the same mindset that got us into this mess.
With the 2010 Census came confirmation that Memphis has lost a fair amount of population density. This wasn’t a surprise, you can drive through just about any neighborhood and figure that out. Despite the lack of density, the size of Memphis hasn’t gotten any smaller. We’re still the same number of square miles we were last year. Little has been done to motivate people to be a part of the in-fill necessary to reverse this trend, and ensure we’re getting a maximum bang for the buck on our infrastructure investments. I understand it took us a long time to get in this hole and it will take a long time to get out of it,
According to the 2010 Census there are over 41,500 unoccupied housing units in Memphis alone out of 292,000 units. Just under 52% of those units are owner occupied. This trails the national average by about 15%, which is nearly the same as the vacancy rate.
I understand that by and large these vacant residences are getting their property taxes paid. I understand Property Tax makes up about 41% of city revenue, so filling them doesn’t bring in instant money. But those new people will have to buy stuff, which will help the second biggest tax collection area, sales tax, which makes up about 15% of revenue. 41,500 new households with an average of 2.6 people will have a lot of crap to buy every year.
But I’m not sure if any Council members have driven through some of the neighborhoods with lots of homes for sale. Some of them are nice middle class areas that most folks would be proud to call home, others are once nice areas that have been allowed to deteriorate into hit or miss neighborhoods populated by unkempt rental property that ultimately detracts from the value of the owner occupied homes in the neighborhood.
I drive past many of these on my way to school each morning and I wonder why every fifth house or so is boarded up or has the entirety of someone’s belongings on the curb like the house was bulimic and just couldn’t hold it in any more. The neighborhood I speak of looks like the one I grew up in in North Little Rock, a once proud working class neighborhood near the tracks that got bought up by slumlords who care more about the rent check than the property or the people living in the property.
On the major arteries surrounding this neighborhood there are boarded up buildings and abandoned foundation pads of businesses long lost. Sometimes I see people congregating in these areas, or someone hocking T-shirts or shoes, but most of the time they just sit there, rubble of a retail center, or factory, or warehouse long lost in the decay of the inner city.
How are we going to create this mythical in-fill while this persists? Why do we allow property owners the luxury of leaving these forgotten lots unattended? What penalty do we impose for leaving these scars on our city? Most importantly, why don’t we reclaim this land, and work to fill these gaps with something that would contribute to the neighborhood and ultimately, the city.
I can’t decide if we don’t do this because it’s just too big or if we’re scared of the blowback from folks that own the land.
Instead of addressing the disease we strike out at the symptoms of our problems. Instead of working to build new revenue we focus on cutting expenses, which ultimately penalizes people who who top out at about $16/hr ($33k/yr) because they cost too much to pick up our trash. We plan to contract further by cutting Fire Department staff and equipment. We call this “right sizing” but really its a reaction to a long-term lack of vision that penalizes the very people whose work keeps the city going.
Through all of this the media gives lip service to the token solutions that are put forward in one breath and then trains their eye on some trivial crap that looks good, but is less than .00001% of the total City budget, as if cutting that would solve anything.
And I admit that I’m as guilty as anyone of getting swept up in the tide of this insignificant crap more often than I wish I would.
So while I wish there was some better vision out there, I know that any land reclamation or redevelopment will take a long time to pay off.
In the mean time, the City Government will have to adjust service levels to the population of the city. This means that all 17 City divisions will have to become lean, mean, and highly efficient. This means that, like all of us, some of those workers will have to do more, better and faster. It doesn’t mean these reforms have to turn into an attack on unions a la Councilman Kemp Conrad’s sanitation solution. It means that there has to be cooperation between management and the workers to deliver exceptional service. There has to be accountability. Processes have to be streamlined, transparency has to become more than just lip service, and some positions will have to be eliminated, hopefully through regular attrition rather than furloughs and layoffs that will ultimately increase our already high unemployment rate.
With all that said, it also means that there will have to be some kind of tax increase, and if that’s all people can think about then they’re too selfish to see the real pain people of far lesser means feel in this city every day, not just twice a year when City and County property taxes are taken out of their escrow accounts.
With all that said, I’m happy to pay a little more on my property taxes if I have a guarantee that the money will be spent in such a way that makes government more transparent and efficient. That should always be the arrangement with any government entity. You may think me a fool for saying this, but I have faith in this city and the belief that we all have a responsibility, beyond just paying taxes and expecting services. We have a responsibility to pay attention to what’s going on, beyond what the media feels like reporting. We have a responsibility to understand the process and crawl up someone’s ass when we feel like they’re doing the wrong thing. Through all of that, we have a responsibility to give the city a chance to change and become agents for that change.
Until that happens, nothing will happen.
Maybe one day the City Council, as a body, will decide to take up that mantle and lead with it…but I’m not holding my breath.