The Brookings Institution, in a new report on the growth of extreme poverty in the U.S., wrote what we already know full well in the Memphis MSA: we’re at the top of the rankings.  What’s more interesting is that it’s the trends in the suburbs that propel us there.

If there’s any wake-up call for the suburbs or for the proposition that we are all in this together, here it is: the concentrated poverty rate for the suburbs of the Memphis MSA is ranked #8 in the U.S. among 100 largest metros.

It’s the suburb’s high ranking that drives the Memphis MSA to #3 for concentrated poverty.  The city of Memphis alone is #13 among the 100 largest cities.

Brookings wrote about extreme poverty (the fastest growing income group in America): “Rather than spread evenly, the poor tend to cluster and concentrate in certain neighborhoods or groups of neighborhoods within a community.  Very poor neighborhoods face a whole host of challenges that come from concentrated disadvantage – from higher crime rates and poor health

Tale of the Tape

The good news is that the Memphis MSA wasn’t in the top 10 for regions where extreme-poverty neighborhoods increased the most in the past 10 years.   It grew at 8.2% in Memphis, well behind the 14.5% in El Paso, 13.2% in Detroit, 15.3% in Toledo, and 12.2% in Jackson, MS.  The bad news is that we didn’t record the significant increases of many other regions because there just wasn’t much more concentrated that our poverty could get.

The Memphis MSA has 48 extreme-poverty census tracts (at least 40% of people living below poverty level) with a concentrated poverty rate of 27.7%.  That compares to Nashville at 8.1%, Louisville at 16.9%, Atlanta at 6.4%, Birmingham at 10.9%, and Raleigh at 6.5%.

Our peer group includes Detroit, 23.6%; Milwaukee, 23.4%; Baton Rouge, 22.7%; Cleveland, 23.5%; Poughkeepsie, 27%; Jackson, MS, 22.7%, and Rochester, 22%.   The only MSAs with concentrated poverty rates higher than Memphis are McAllen, TX, at 53.2% and El Paso at 34.9%.

The depth of the issue underscores the way that the problems of concentrated poverty are turbocharged here.  While some cities are now grappling with this emerging issue, we have been wrestling with it for decades.

Sign On for Selfish Reasons

It’s also why if we’re talking about economic development and not talking about attacking poverty with the full resources of our region, we are merely engaging in delusion on a massive scale.  As long as so many people are locked out of the economic mainstream, it keeps money out of our cash registers at the same time that the costs of public services to these troubled neighborhoods are increasing.

We’ve written many times since we started this blog more than six years ago about the cancer of economic segregation in our region.  Hopefully, the Brookings Institution report will deliver that message with an exclamation mark.  It’s encouraging that the Wharton Administration has been talking about how Memphis can become ground zero for imaginative, effective programs to reduce poverty, to give every child the opportunity to escape from it, and to develop the talent that is needed for today’s complex global economy.

It’s a tall order.  It’s a daunting order.  But we have stalled long enough and the consequences of inaction are becoming clearer and clearer.  The new experiment to determine if monetary rewards can improve behaviors is well worth a try.  The wrap-around social services that are needed to custom tailor interventions for each poor family are a step in the right direction.  But, most of all, there must be a shared regional understanding that poverty is an enemy to all of our plans for a better future.

In other words, no one needs to sign up for moral reasons, religious reasons, or patriotic reasons. All of those might be motivation enough for many people, but all we need is a healthy dose of enlightened self-interest.  In other words, let’s take the most selfish approach possible, because if we only care about what’s best for our businesses and our economic futures, we should urge every elected official in our region to put poverty as the overriding priority for our community.

And, So?

So, why does concentrated poverty matter?

According to Brookings, concentrated poverty can 1) limit educational opportunity – “children in high-poverty communities tend to go to neighborhood schools where nearly all the students are poor and at greater risk of failure..teachers in these schools tend to be less experienced, the student body more mobile…”, 2) can lead to increased crime rates and poor health outcomes; 3) can hinder wealth building – “neighborhood conditions can lead to the market to devalue these assets and deny them the ability to accumulate wealth through the appreciations of house prices, 4) can reduce private-sector investment and increase prices for goods and services; and 5) can raise costs for local government.

The report also contained a bad omen for Memphis MSA.  “It is unlikely the nation has seen the end of poverty’s upward trend.  Trends from the past decade strongly indicate that it is difficult to make progress against concentrated poverty while poverty itself is on the rise.  It is also unlikely that without fundamental changes in how regions plan for things like land use, zoning, housing, and workforce and economic development that the growth of extreme poverty neighborhoods and concentrated poverty will abate.

“With cities and suburbs increasingly sharing in the challenges of concentrated poverty, regional economic development strategies must do more to encourage balanced growth with opportunities for workers up and down the economic ladder.  Metropolitan leaders must also actively foster economic integration throughout their regions and forge stronger connections between poor neighborhoods and areas with better education and job opportunities, so that low-income residents are not left out or left behind in the effort to grow the regional economy.”