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As poverty rises in Shelby County, so does the need to do more

Amid a picture of more than $13 billion in ongoing development comes news of a 15 percent rise in poverty across Memphis and Shelby County for 2018 – including a 20 percent increase among African Americans.

“We’re still attracting employers that don’t give us potential for increased income,” said Martavius Jones, financial advisor and Memphis City Councilman, regarding the 2019 Poverty Fact Sheet for Memphis and Shelby County.

“We need to be deliberate in who we provide incentives and PILOTS (payment in lieu of taxes),” he said. “When a company expands to Memphis paying $15 per hour ($31,200 a year) vs. $60,000 to $70,000 a year, there’s no reason to incentivize that.”

The report, released in September, was prepared by Dr. Elena Delavega, associate professor at the University of Memphis, and Dr. Gregory Blumenthal of GMBS Consulting. Findings clarify data from the American Community Survey completed annually by thousands of local citizens.

Alarmingly, 44.9 percent of children in Memphis and Shelby County live in poverty and Memphis is ranked second to Detroit in poverty among metropolitan cities with a 500,000-plus population. 

Core issues

“(1) Wages (2) child care (3) public transportation and (4) healthcare are where we need investment,” said Delavega. “Investment in these areas would solve the problem.”

 When a mother has to make a decision whether to go back to work or pay for day care, she’s forced into a decision that’s harmful to the community,” Delavega said. 

“There’s a lack of affordable child care … and even if both parents work full time, but make minimum wages, a family struggles to pay.”

And, if it takes two hours or more to get to work using the public transit system, that impacts the ability to do a good job because you’re exhausted, she said. 

“If we’re really serious about family values, we’ll invest in public transit. When Mexico City and Bangkok in developing nations produce amazing public transit infrastructures, we have no justification for not doing the same.”

As for healthcare, Delevega said, “No healthcare means a greater disease load for everyone. If people aren’t healthy, they can’t work effectively. Poverty and desperation lead to crime. So we’ll all pay for poverty … there’s no way to avoid it.”

Fighting lack – now and beyond 

Jones said a first start in increasing wages is making adjustments to the Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE) Board, the body driving public funds for economic development in Memphis and Shelby County. EDGE provides incentives to employers that create jobs.

“Setting ‘an agenda’ for the city and appointing more elected officials (to the board) can improve wages,” Jones said. Currently, the 11-member board includes one member each from the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners.

Non-profits assist indigent citizens, yet more support is needed. Vision 2020, launched in 2015 by the Women’s Foundation of Greater Memphis (WFGM), is aimed at reducing poverty by five percent in ZIP Code 38126, one of the poorest areas in Memphis and the country. 

Funded with $4.7 million in grants through April 2020, the Vision 2020 Strategic Plan is designed to help residents secure housing, increase wages and improve high school graduation rates, GED rates and entry into college or job training programs.

“We’ve also increased the number of parents receiving support with parenting skills and self-child care priorities, said Ruby Bright, WFGM president/CEO. 

“There’s a spirit of determination and community pride (in 38126) that’s undervalued by the greater community. Booker T. Washington (BTW) High School is an ‘anchor of hope’ with educators who love and care for the children. They welcome support in any manner that creates a positive outcome.”

Bright said when residents gain and retain employment, home purchases increase. The South City Resource Center, which opened more than a year ago inside BTW, engages parents and children with useful resources.

Even with three-year gains, Vision 2020 data shows a need to grow the number of children enrolled in “quality” early childcare. (See www.wfgm.org for details.)

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland is working toward Universal Pre-K and is adding jobs through The 800 Initiative, an effort to grow 800 minority-owned businesses by 2023.

In September, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris proposed fueling Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) with $10 million annually via a fee for citizens owning three or more vehicles. MATA serves both city and county residents.

“All will enjoy the benefits of clean air, reduced congestion and a reduction in poverty,” Harris said in a related story. “This sustainable investment in transit helps achieve all those objectives.”

Shelby County Commissioners must approve the plan; details roll out in early 2020. 

At a recent meeting in Orange Mound (an area built for African Americans 25 years after slavery), State Rep. G. A. Hardaway proposed that churches form credit unions offering micro loans for housing repairs or small business needs. 

Orange Mound, which suffers from declining property values, is included in the Tourism Development Zone set for the old Mid-South Fairgrounds spot and beyond. Site plans are projected to spur engagement and growth.

In 2020, registered voters can select the U.S. presidential candidate of their choice, each providing new nationwide healthcare proposals. 

Better findings

The Poverty Fact Sheet reveals that Shelby County’s Latino citizens saw a 20 percent poverty decrease in 2018. Initially, Delavega thought this might be due to fewer Latinos completing the survey, but little evidence supports the theory. She’s intrigued by data showing that more Latinos are residing in Shelby County suburbs. 

Caucasians across Memphis/Shelby County saw a slight uptick in poverty – from 8 percent in 2017 to 8.6 percent in 2018.

“Every single business would do better (with reduced poverty), said Delavega.

“Legislators from this part of the state who lobby for funding are constantly defeated, leaving Memphis out. If we’re serious about seeing Memphis and Shelby County thrive, Tennessee will invest in plans that help.” 

(To see the 2019 Poverty Fact Sheet, visit https://www.memphis.edu/socialwork/research/2019povertyfactsheet.pdf.)

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