The City Within a City

It seems nothing can be done to fight poverty. It’s time we started talking about winning that battle.



It is the biggest lottery of our lives: the neighborhood into which we are born.

If we win, we have better chances for success in our lives. If we lose, we start off life with minefields in front of us.

The odds: 64/36. The first number is the percentage of Memphis children born into families above poverty and the second is the percentage born into families below poverty.

Most of the 36 percent are found in what the Wharton administration calls Memphis’ “geography of poverty,” a distinct arc of need and neglect that runs from North Memphis to South Memphis and is connected by a strip of neighborhoods that runs parallel to downtown.

A few weeks ago, the TV news media were harping on 90 pregnant teenagers at Frayser High School while neglecting the fact that they were doing something right for their babies: staying in school. As Doug Imig at the Urban Child Institute said, “Education is a powerful prophylactic,” because women determined to graduate and go to college are much more likely to put off motherhood.

While Memphis focused on the 90 pregnant students and their babies, some 60,000 children were already living in poverty here who receive the message — every day in their quality of life and the quality of their schools — that they do not matter.

These children live in the Memphis few of us ever visit, a city within a city — a city of 150,000 equivalent in size to Chattanooga. This geography of poverty is awash with foreclosures, joblessness, crime, blight, welfare dependency, and issues that define intractable multigenerational indigence that is a birthright to about two out of five children born in Memphis.

The majority of the children in this “city” are born to single mothers and slightly more than half will drop out of school. Half of these children live in dire, grinding situations, with a family income of about $10,000 or less a year, and as adults, they will earn about half as much as middle-class children. Only 4 percent of the people in their neighborhoods worked full-time in the past 12 months and only 5 percent have college degrees.

At least 15 percent of the students in every grade of Memphis City Schools moves during the school year, and for ninth-graders, it climbs to almost 30 percent. The transient lifestyle aggravates their unequal start in life, preventing the support that comes from more stable educational and family environments.

Inside this geography of poverty, people die young: Mortality rates for African-American babies are three-and-a-half times higher than Caucasian babies, infants die at twice the rate of children across the U.S., and in seven zip codes, the mean age of death for African Americans is less than 56 years.

The densities of the neighborhoods are less than half of what they were in 1970, and in some census tracts, the density has fallen by two-thirds, increasing the cost and difficulty of providing public services, especially the social-net services that are crucial to these families.

In the end, it’s not surprising that many of the people cannot escape the grip of poverty. The surprise is that so many do.

Regardless of the outcome of the city referendum that would consolidate Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools, the future of these 60,000 at-risk children will largely shape the future of the region. That’s why it’s in every person’s enlightened self-interest to break the cycle that holds them.

In politics, triangulation is an ideological tactic mastered by President Clinton, but in Memphis, triangulation is the approach now being used to attack poverty. Flowing out of Mayor A C Wharton’s city-of-choice vision, which aspires to be a city where Memphis City Schools students are “treated as assets rather than as problems,” city government has begun programs to reduce homelessness and is working with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s program to award cash in return for specific actions and behaviors. Also, city government, two local foundations, and several community development corporations have created Community L.I.F.T. to turn around Memphis’ problem neighborhoods. 

It’s been decades since this much attention, resources, and firepower have been focused on fighting the problems of poverty in Memphis. In the end, however, everyone on the front lines knows that the biggest obstacle to overcome is the thinking that nothing really can be done. 

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