Poverty In Memphis

Poverty isn't just happening in Memphis
Everyone has an image in their mind of what poverty looks like. We all have some concept of what it means to live in poverty.

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.

Income Inequality in America
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.

Individuals living in poverty and poverty rate
by year, and administration
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.

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