A special message on poverty in Memphis


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When I campaigned for mayor in 2015, I said this: “Memphis is a stark “Tale of Two Cities,” where the disproportional gap between the wealthy and the poor has grown exponentially.”

I believe it as much today as I did then. It has been the case in Memphis for decades and decades, and no cause is more important to the health of our city decades from now than reversing poverty and inequity.

The statistics are sobering:

  • 27.6 percent of Memphians live in poverty, according to the last Census estimate.
  • 44.4 percent of Memphis children live in poverty.
  • We had made progress as a community, but the 2008 recession and our slow recovery from it put us behind. In the 2000 Census, for example, our poverty rate was 20.6 percent.

As the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination approaches next week, you’ll see more and more coverage and conversation about just how much progress we’ve made — and how much more progress we need to make — on poverty. You should. It’s critically important that more and more Memphians understand this challenge and mobilize with all of us who are working to address it. I encourage these conversations.

And it’s critically important that we keep Dr. King’s dream alive. Particularly in his later years, Dr. King was a strong advocate for economic justice. Nowhere more than in Memphis, we must remain committed to this.

To everyone taking up this cause, know this: We’re with you at City Hall.

In a little over two years in office, here’s some of what we’ve done:

  • We reorganized and reinvigorated our efforts to improve minority contracting, as it’s the single most direct way City government can help build generational wealth. In our first full fiscal year, we aren’t just up slightly — we’re up 61 percent in MWBE contracting.
  • Just this month, we worked with the City Council to propose a way for the City to make a meaningful step toward fully funding Pre-Kindergarten for our kids. Early childhood education is a game-changer of a poverty initiative. 
  • We’ve worked tirelessly on attracting good jobs to Memphis. At the end of last year, 13,000 more Memphians were employed than two years prior. And just last September, our monthly unemployment rate hit a modern low.
  • We continue to improve and promote the free workforce training we offer at our Workforce Investment Network, along with free educational opportunities through Tennessee Promise and the roughly 15,000 open jobs in the Memphis area at jobs4tn.gov.

At City government, we pride ourselves in the example we’re setting. All of our full-time employees make a living wage — and 95 percent make $15 or more per hour.

With our solid waste employees in particular, we’ve come a long way. In 1968, these men worked for poverty wages with no benefits whatsoever. Today, the average solid waste worker makes $17.34 an hour and receives benefits such as health insurance, a retirement plan, vacation, and a grievance process.

Just last year, in fact, we added another component to the solid waste workers’ retirement plan to bring it in line with their City colleagues.

Am I satisfied with the progress Memphis has made in the past 50 years? Of course not. And I hope you aren’t, either. That’s why we’re continuing our work to do more and more — such as our recent Pre-K proposal.

These are long-term efforts to combat a long-term challenge. The good news is this: With what we’re doing, and with thousands of Memphians working on the front lines every single day, our best days are ahead of us.

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