One of our oft-used aphorisms is “every system is perfectly designed to produce the results that it gets.”
Memphis is just such a system, and that’s why it’s surprising when the news media and others are stunned when a new study or ranking is released that shows Memphis as one of the most “troubled” cities, one of the most “distressed” cities, or with economic indicators going in the wrong direction.
After all, the system is perfectly designed to produce the results that it produces.
All too often, we act as if we are mere victims of forces beyond our control or that things just happened to make us who we are today. It ignores the fact that the present results from choices, and that it was choices we made – not simply forces and factors – that decided whether we stagnated or succeeded.
Seeing Choices as Choices
The simple truth is that choices were made 15, 20, 25, and 30 years ago that resulted in us being exactly where and who we are today. The more difficult fact to face is that we are making choices today – right now – and often we don’t even recognize them as such, and because of it, we settle for incremental progress or decisions that don’t challenge the status quo.
There’s no question that Memphis and the region have always had serious structural issues, some dating back more than a century, and there’s equally no question that they create a high hill to climb. But the persistent idea that we are prisoners of trend lines and data points undermines our most basic ability to recognize choices when they are crystallized right in front of us.
As a result, we still don’t recognize choices as choices, but as merely decisions that have to be made for the short term rather than for the long-term future. Because of that narrow perspective, we regularly fail to connect our decisions as shaping the issues that we discuss with such angst year after year.
Choosing What We Are To Be
One of the most troubling signs is the deepening inequities in the economic system here, but rather than concentrate on creating a system that pays living wages and has more equity built into it, we choose to give more and more incentives to big business. Rather than concentrate on the ramifications of mass incarceration that drives stakes into the heart of thousands of Memphis families, we choose to pursue tougher sentences and harsher punishment that result in one of the nation’s highest incarceration rates while the creation of a just city is within our reach.
Rather than concentrating on how to capitalize on the road network we’ve already paid for, we choose to build more lanes of traffic farther away from the core city when we have the power to take assertive, aggressive actions to reduce the distances between the employee-rich sections and the jobs-rich sections of Memphis. Rather than concentrating on how to increase investments in the public services that bind together the fabric of urban neighborhoods, we choose to put more and more into budgets that are about arrests and convictions. Rather than concentrating on ways to mitigate one of the most regressive state tax systems in the country, we choose to pursue policies that increase the disparity in the percentage of income paid in taxes by low-income and high-income families.
We could go on, but you get the point.
We continue to treat issues as decisions to be made today rather than choices that will define tomorrow.
And to compound things, we rarely see them as interconnected choices or links in a chain of decisions that define the malignant economic segregation, the expanding economic disparities, the dire concentrated poverty, and the hollowing out of the middle class.
These days, there is a rhetorical tug of war between black lives matter and all lives matter, but more than anything, in Memphis, black lives matter. Here, they are paramount, if we are going to be serious about a successful future for Memphis, as characterized by thicker middle class, higher incomes, more opportunities, better education, and better neighborhoods.
And it only makes good sense that in a city that is 63% African American, and where the African American poverty rate is 30.1% although it’s as high as 60% in some zip codes. In other words, until we have an ambitious plan to capitalize on our vein of African American talent by refusing to see children as problems, by refusing to see people in poverty for their potential, by refusing to accept the status quo, and setting out to be the place that breaks the link between race and poverty, Memphis is sleepwalking into the future.
And that future will be more of the same.
There are plenty of warning signs, such as when the Economic Innovation Group concluded that Memphis is one of the country’s most distressed cities with almost 70 percent of its people living in distress. In one zip code, the percent of people living in distress is 99.1%. The study used seven data points for its rankings, and of course, these kinds of rankings are all about which variables that are chosen.
That said, none of the ones that drag down Memphis’ ranking is a surprise. We’ve written often about them: educational attainment, housing vacancy rates, unemployment rates, poverty levels, median income ratios, percent changes in unemployment, and the percentage change in the number of businesses.
Reeling From The Great Recession
The rankings were striking for the fact that so many of the cities in distress are located in red states (and seem to be competing to see which ones have the worst legislatures). The two data points that seemed to most interest the researchers were housing and creation of new businesses.
It was yet another reminder of how devastating the Great Recession was for Memphis. While it dealt a blow to African American wealth across the U.S., few cities were hit as hard as Memphis, where the economic tsunami wiped out decades of Africa American wealth. As a country where most of our wealth is tied up in our houses, the fact that Memphis was a center for predatory lending only served to increase the size of the waves that capsized so many families. And that’s not mentioning the federal policies for decades that prevented African Americans from increasing wealth through home ownership.
And yet, many talk about the Great Recession and the attendant deepening problems of inequality as if it was as a natural disaster, rather than as something that occurred because of choices being made about policies and plans. In Joseph Stiglitz’s book, The Great Divide, one of the chapters is titled “Inequality Is a Choice,” and his point is that as a nation, we make tax shelters the higher priority rather than higher minimum wages and we put greater emphasis on subsidies for corporations rather than services to help children break free of the cycle of poverty.
Meanwhile, poor people are regularly portrayed as “takers” and people looking for free rides rather than being buffeted by choices that are more favorable to Wall Street and the 1%. And, here at home, the Tennessee Legislature forbade – and forced Memphis to reverse – an ordinance for a living wage, it refuses Medicaid expansion to improve the health of hundreds of thousands of people, it pushes more and more guns into the public sphere, and institutionalizes an unfair tax system by adding a Constitutional prohibition against a state income tax.
Inequality Isn’t The Problem
Here’s the thing: in Memphis and Shelby County, we have some tools that can improve the toughest issues like inequality, but the underlying problem isn’t the inequality itself. It’s the fact that we don’t recognize that there are choices that we can make to change things – or that we don’t even see them as choices in the first place. It is in seeing decisions differently – as choices – that we change our perspective, consider alternative scenarios, and look to the future with greater confidence. It is in seeing that we are making choices that we move past superficial ideas – like the idea that the answer to poverty is simply to create jobs, any jobs, and that any road is a good road – and see issues in new ways and in a new light.
Sadly, there is less economic mobility in the U.S. than in class-conscious Europe. Here, 70% of Americans raised at the bottom never reach the middle, African American children are 11 times more likely than white children to grow up in a high poverty neighborhood, and children born in poverty are highly likely to stay there.
Put simply, Memphis cannot succeed as long as 20% of its population is living on $13,520. It results in less money in local businesses’ cash registers, less money to be spent on enrichment activities for children, less money for better lives. Memphis has become a city of extremes – one where the poor are very poor and the rich are very rich.
The end result is a city with two few revenues for the services that are vital for the lives of its people, particularly those in neighborhood characterized by concentrated poverty and blight and low densities. Among the 50 largest cities, Memphis is #16 in income inequality, which should be encouragement that we should start now, right now, to start making choices that can make a difference.
Setting The Right Priorities
We are at a point when economic inequality has worsened (just as it has nationally), when economic policies are making it worse, and when ultimately the inequality will be destabilizing to the region because it is a drag and deterrent to economic growth. Just as third world problems stem from those at the bottom feeling disenchanted, disenfranchised, and marginalized, Memphis shows signs of similar growing pressures.
The answer seems clear: to succeed and to achieve its vision, Memphis must set opportunity, wealth creation, and financial resiliency for every Memphian as top priorities. It is the strongest medicine for a better city and the best road to a better future. It begins by making better choices.
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