I recently received a draft copy of The Urban Child Institute’s 2010 Databook, and was struck by one line in particular: “… for children, there are two realities to life in Shelby County…”

This statement is certainly true, and there is a world of difference between those two realities when it comes to the early developmental experiences, school readiness, academic success and later life outcomes of our children.

Roughly half of children in our community live in the first of these two worlds: Their parents hold living wage jobs, are able to cover mortgage payments, and these children will likely grow up in relative safety and security. Across the county, these families are disproportionately located in the suburbs, are much more likely to be White, and are much more likely to grow up with both parents present.

Meanwhile, the other half of children in the County are born into a very different world: they will live in poverty during the critical years between birth and kindergarten entry. These children are much more likely to be Black, to live within the city, and to live with a single-parent. In Memphis, nearly 1 in 4 young children (age five or younger) actually live in dire poverty – equal to about $10,000 a year for a mother and child. These children will know first-hand the crushing configuration of uncertainty, chaos and toxic stress associated with grinding poverty in early childhood.
Poverty in early childhood has effects that last into adulthood. A careful review of some 30,000 American families over the last four decades shows that children who live in poverty during the first five years of life are likely to finish two fewer years of school than are children born into middle-class families. As adults, these same children will earn about half as much each year as their peers born into middle-class families. Early childhood poverty also doubles the risk of health and psychological problems in adulthood (Duncan 2009).

My colleague John Gnuschke, Director of the Sparks Bureau for Business and Economic Research at the University of Memphis, offers a thoughtful perspective on the shifting demographics of poverty in the city:

“… white and higher income families of all races with children are fleeing the city and leaving behind older upper income professionals and poor families with children who cannot afford to access the quality housing and school systems in newer suburbs. This has been promoted by transportation opportunities, school construction patterns, housing development patterns and taxing patterns.

…If taxes are too high and the cost of private schools is too high, middle class and affluent families are much better off to flee and seek both lower taxes and better public schools. New housing is also an attraction for newly minted middle class families of all races. Employers and employment opportunities flow to those areas of recent growth. … the flight to safety and security has many stages and one of them is to move to the city and the second is to move to the suburbs. This has always been a pattern for Delta families seeking employment and income opportunities.

…The only ones really harmed by the movement are the families that are left behind with few opportunities to overcome their position in life. The decaying infrastructure is more than just poor schools and abandoned factories, it is the destruction of the American adventure based on hope for a brighter future.

Children with little or no hope of a promising future are an image that few people can envision. It is the image of Sugar Ditch brought to the city.”