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Why Is There Poverty in Memphis? Starting the Conversation (Part 1)

December 18, 2012

Recently we outlined next year’s agenda for Back in River City. (Okay, so it was buried deep in one of my less serious, meandering posts, but it was there.)  Our  primary focus in 2013 will be on four pernicious Memphis issues:  poverty, schools, public transportation, and local government funding.

Our objective is nothing less than to engage every one of you who hasn’t given up on Memphis and tackle these pernicious, elephantine problems together.

Photo credit: digitalART2 / Foter / CC BY

Elephantine: Like this.
Photo credit: digitalART2 / Foter / CC BY

Our plan:

1. Inform: bring you insights and critical analysis missing from local media

2. Catalyze: start conversations that reveal root causes and viable solutions

3. Engage: organize voters to get the right things done right


So let’s start the conversation!

Our sincere thanks to Back in River City follower  LLMemphian for his thoughtful and thorough response to our agenda. LLMemphian had much to say about our proposed focus, beginning with the issue of poverty. Here’s an excerpt, something for all of us to chew on as we start our dialogue:

Reducing poverty – Aren’t the answers to this essentially personal? Aren’t large populations of poverty in Memphis and the USA a result largely of choice? Aren’t the answers (a) a personal will to (1) do right, (2) use educational opportunities that are offered, and (3) willingness to work? Isn’t Memphis poverty largely a result of (1) consequences of ignoring educational opportunities in public schools, (2) lack of interest in doing earnest work most days of the week, most days of the year, and (3) making the choice so simply take what one wants, either from government, private charity, or crime rather than earning it?

Your questions are valid and shared by others, LLMemphian.

Is poverty a choice?  

While I’d love to jump straight into that provocative issue, I’m a process junkie, so let’s start at the beginning. We’ll respond to your points  (and any additional questions posed by our readers) over the course of this series on poverty. But, first:

What do we mean by “living in poverty?”

The federal government has two different ways of measuring poverty:

1.Poverty thresholds (the “poverty line”),  updated each year by the U.S. Census, are used primarily for statistical purposes, i.e., estimating the number of people living in poverty in the U.S.

Poverty thresholds define poverty as a dollar amount below which families or individuals are considered to lack “the resources to meet the basic needs for healthy living.”  There are  48 poverty thresholds, assigned according to household size and makeup.  Here’s an easy  example: Fred is single, under 65, and lives alone. In 2011 his income was $11,702, the official poverty threshold for an individual in those circumstances.

Technically, if Fred had made $1 more, he would not have been one of the 15 million Americans living in poverty (although he would be considered “low income” or “near poor,” terms defined below).

It wouldn’t matter whether Fred lived in New York City, Southaven, or Cody, Wyoming, because thresholds (the Official Poverty Measure) do not consider location.

I suspect New York City housing for someone making $11,702 looks something like this:



The basic formula for calculating poverty thresholds is essentially unchanged (except for annual inflation adjustments) since its creation in 1963-64 at at the dawn of the War on Poverty.  It’s a simple one: the cost of a year’s worth of minimally acceptable food for each individual in the household, times three. It was further simplified in 1969 when annual changes were tied to the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

2. Poverty guidelines are  used by the Department of Health and Human Services to determine eligibility for federal  aid programs.

Poverty guidelines are “simplified” versions of the thresholds, but different aid programs and agencies interpret the thresholds differently.  For example, definitions of  “income” and “family” vary. Income may be measured before tax or after tax, depending on the program.

Last year (2011), the Census Bureau released an interagency study  that proposed a broader methodology for measuring poverty.  The report argued that the Official Poverty Measure described above is flawed because it does not factor in variables such as geographical differences in living and medical costs and employment expenses (e.g., transportation and child care). Researchers also pointed out that the value of governmental assistance provided to struggling families is ignored, and should be added to their effective income.

The report recommended a  Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) be used to accompany the Official Poverty Measure.  The SPM is calculated by a much more complex formula that takes into consideration geographic location, family assets, debt load, medical expenses, and other variables.  Using the SPM, the percentage of people in America living in poverty increases from 15.1% to 16.1%, adding some 3 million people to the count ~ despite the allowance for welfare subsidies. (Note: The Obama administration’s official position is that the SPM is not used to qualify persons for welfare benefits.)

The SPM is not the only change in how poverty is measured.

In September 2011, the Census Bureau’s annual report on poverty  (for 2010) classified a stunning 48% of Americans as “poor” or “near poor.” While these official terms previously applied only to households with income less than 200% of the poverty line, broader definitions  have been adopted by the Obama administration. Critics like Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation notes that “near poverty” is now “very close to the median income in most communities.” For a family of four in Oakland, California, Rector points out, “near poor” now means a pre-tax income of $89,699 plus medical insurance. 

Public Understanding of Poverty

Enough with the statistics. Not only are they are confusing, but they frame the problem as one that is not only as big as an elephant, but growing so fast that the elephant appears about to charge.

Photo credit: engelboel

Photo credit: engelboel

We know that poverty is real, especially in Memphis. We know there is widespread suffering. We see the crumbling, crime-infested neighborhoods. We know that  many live with unstable food supplies. What do these numbers really mean to us?  How do we define poverty as it truly exists? It can’t be  just a dollar amount. Is it living conditions?

Rector’s 2011 Heritage Foundation white paper  “Understanding Poverty in the U.S.: Surprising Facts About America’s Poor”  attempts to shine light on what poverty actually looks like across the country.  While the Census Report merely provides statistics about poverty, Rector combs through data from numerous supplemental federal surveys of the poor that profile their living conditions. His well-documented findings confirm that poverty is not as widespread or harsh as statistics and mainstream media accounts portray.

While the general public tends to think of poverty as sub-standard housing, hunger, and lack of medical care, Rector  generally refutes such notions for the vast majority of our nation’s poor.  He documents actual living conditions that are hard but not unspeakable, arguing that “the overwhelming majority of poor households have an adequate and reasonably steady supply of food, are not hungry, and are well housed.”

Rector cites a national poll June 2009  that asked a representative sample of Americans if they agreed or disagreed with the following statement:

“A family in the U.S. that has a decent, un-crowded house or apartment to live in, ample food to eat, access to medical care, a car, cable TV, air conditioning and a microwave at home should not be considered poor.”

Over three quarters of respondents agreed that a family living in those living conditions should not be considered poor (including, Rector points out, 80 percent of Republicans and 77 percent of Democrats). That statement describes the majority of people considered poor by government standards.

In 2011, 70 percent of poor households reported that  they were able to meet “all essential expenses,” including mortgage, rent, utility bills, and important medical care, in the previous year. Only 13 percent of poor households reported that a family member had to forego  needed medical services due to financial hardship. The vast majority of the poor lived in uncrowded housing that was  in good repair (again,  these facts are taken from government studies used to gather information about the poor). Homelessness, often associated with images of poverty, is generally a transitional state, and applies to a very small percentage of the poor.

Indeed, poverty itself is transitional.  People bounce back and forth between middle class and the poor as a result of job loss, illness or short-term disability, and other factors. In the deep recession of 2009, only two percent of Americans lived in chronic poverty.

Since 1964, the U.S. government  has spent between $15-17 trillion dollars (sources disagree on precise amount) fighting the War on Poverty. This  amount is curiously similar to the national debt.  The Obama administration has tripled welfare spending, rescinded Clinton-era welfare reform rules, and redefined poverty to include millions more people.

When Lyndon B. Johnson declared War on Poverty, he said:

 “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.”

LBJ’s stated goal was:“making taxpayers out of tax eaters.” He also declared:

“We want to give the forgotten fifth of our people opportunity not doles.”

Today’s bloated, ever-expanding federal welfare entitlements do not attempt to end poverty so much as provide people more comfortable living conditions. The focus of new rules and definitions is to view poverty on a sliding scale, relative to other citizens (income inequality). Redistribution of income is the goal, a fact openly stated in Census Bureau reports.

There’s a big problem with that concept, beyond its socialistic bent in a capitalistic country.  While much good has been accomplished by the War on Poverty, forced dependency on welfare has created generational poverty, a stultifying state that eats away at human dignity.

If you consider material hardship, most of our poor are impoverished only by U.S. standards, not the world’s. A closer look at poverty in Memphis and America reveals a far greater tragedy than a few missed meals. Look closer and you see wholesale destruction of the traditional family, which first occurred in the African American community and is now widespread across ethnicities and races. You’ll see people who fear risk, who are complacent with lives devoid of the opportunity for greatness.  You’ll see people without Big Hairy Audacious Goals. People who don’t even know how to set goals.  People who have more babies because each one means an increase in their monthly checks. Children who will never know the satisfaction of outstanding personal achievement. People who have been permanently assigned to an underclass.

Is that what any of us wants, either for ourselves or for the needy in Greater Memphis?

Not me. I want to see lots of little girls in Frayser following in  the perfect-10 footfalls of Gabby Douglas, or aspiring to be a condoleezza-riceCondoleezza Rice; dozens of young men from Orange Mound becoming Rhodes Scholars at Oxford University; and a multihued city whose fully-employed labor force abounds with creativity, innovation, and a bias for excellence.

Agree? Disagree?  Post your questions or comments below, or by email to  Next time, in Part 2 of this series, we’ll chow down on the major causes of poverty in Memphis.

Come chew with us!


7 Comments leave one →
  1. December 18, 2012 10:34 pm

    I am glad you have started this conversation. There are so many layers to this issue. At Christmas time I try to get my students to reflect on their materialism and affluence. At Cordova Middle School (a Title I School) I have a mix of income levels. When they are pressed most will not admit to real need.
    The issue of poverty and materialism is important. A John Stossel report noted several years ago that even people in “poverty” in this country have a microwave, and many have cable TV. In a country that values prosperity (often even over their value as a human being), many people who think themselves poor are merely comparing themselves to those that have a higher level of material belongings or affluence and coming up short.
    The government programs provide access to basics, but not quality basics. Government programs often provide cheap, low nutrition value foods and bare minimum medical coverage, if any. I’d like to see Morgan Spurlock live on government food subsidies for 30 days. I’ll never forget taking Hurricane Katrina victims shopping for food and watching what they put in the basket.
    As this conversation progresses, I would love to share what I think is an answer to poverty. Looking forward to it.

    • December 20, 2012 5:20 pm

      Thanks for your thoughtful response, Darrell. Indeed, this issue is multilayered, complex, and difficult. It will be no small feat for all of us to tease out root causes and effective solutions. Eddie and I look forward to your continued strong input.

      Regarding materialism, the Heritage Foundation report mentioned in the post goes into great detail about the possessions of the average poor household. Our response here, too, cannot be a simple, “Well, if they have all that, they can’t be poor.” I think the exercise of defining poverty forces us to decide: what are acceptable living conditions in America? Our poor live better than the middle class in many countries. One of the defining arguments is whether federal policy should be based on redistributing income ~ i.e., correcting income inequality, or making sure that all families have their basic needs met (food, clothing, shelter, access to health care, education) and opportunities to become self-sufficient. Here again, our country is deeply divided, so we can count on some lively disagreement in this conversation!

      BTW ~ I must admit, I had to Google Morgan Spurlock..

  2. December 18, 2012 11:05 pm

    I am rattling off some random toughts here that have come to me from the general population during face-to-face encounters, but I am not devulging their name. Thus, poverty is BIG BIG BIG Business. It is no accident that people are intentionally kept in a state of poverty; moreover, driven into poverty when they had never known poverty before. Poverty is Big Business becasue the powers-that-be took a good look at the population explosion here in the USA and said we do no have enough poor people in poverty to sustain our police forces, prisons, and national security workforces.

    Of course, poverty means desperatly committed crimes whereby there would have been none before; but now, poverty means higher crime rates no matter what back ground a population comes from. Poverty means, the break up of families, who all got along just fine before the parents lost their jobs, lost their housing, and lost their dignity. Then, the victims are blamed outright for the whole senario. They must have some personal mental problems to have fallen below the poverty line; they must be off their meds. They must not have any get-up-and-go or self-estem. They are in fact lazy or lack the capacity to be inventive. They do not want to work, even if, it is a meager paying temporary job in some warehouse that does not provide any health benefits at all. Then health problems begin to break people down further. Then, they really are in an inreversable trouble. All the other industries line up at the government contract troft to bleed these families dry like ticks on a dog ass. These family members gather to help out the weaker family members, but this drains them too, and the whole communities begin to collaspe. Death soon becomes the only vacation these people will ever get from all the intentional problems that are caused for them by the powers-that-be.

    The people in poverty become far to weak to even fight back; besides the government has taken all of their guns away in the name of nataional security. Under such conditions how long does it take to do this to people; not 50 years; not 30 years; not 10 years; not even 5 years; it only takes one year for whole families to hit rock bottom financially; and only two more years to become suicidal; and if not this, then to finally rise up in a fit of rage and masacare other people at mall or at a school, and for no apparent reason at all; perhaps the reason is just to releave everyone else’s suffering too. To much of anything with no oversight is to much; to much corporate personhood; to much government entrusion; and to much faith based organization that tends to tell people that they are not following whatever guru there is at the time and people are just not giving enough of their time to their faith; whereby, the people are expected to be in a near state of Nirvana 24/7 while their pockets are being picked for every last dime. It is not wonder that heavy drugs both leagal and illegal enters into a commuity that is spiriling downward.

    What we lack, then, is balance between those three things. We need to work towards bringing balance back into people’s lives; and that means to wipe the slate clean and press the refreash button. That would mean compleate debt forgiveness for all citizens and not in exchange for something back either — like teaching in an even poorer community than even your own — but to just give all the people outright forgiveness with no stings attached. And then for our people to never use the usery credit system to govern ourselves again. Such a financial system of banking has caused the collaspe of one civilization after another. And now, it is about to collaspe our own here in the USA.

    But, intsead of helping people out of these ongoing problems, the powers-that-be are fighting over how they are going to distribute their wealth to secure their hold on 100% of the means of production. Only a weak population who are forced into deep ongoing poverty assures them that all that wealth is only in the hands of the few and/or the people who serves the wealthy class. Meanwhile the entertainment industy that they own, entertains the masses to death and weakens down masses into beliving that at any minute someone among them who is in poverty may also become rich from the lottery or when some under cover boss throws them a few bones. Just keep serving us and you, too, may become rich beyond your wildest dreams.

    • December 20, 2012 6:29 pm

      Thanks for joining the conversation, David. Your passionate comments tell me that you have observed someone close to you experience the pain of financial loss and hardship. It sounds like you are an advocate of the debt forgiveness movement, like Rolling Jubilee, which grew out of the Occupy Wall Street movement and whose roots are based on the biblical concept of a Year of Jubilee. We had not been following this, so thanks for bringing it to our attention.

      • December 20, 2012 9:55 pm

        You are correct about the Occupy Movement and even more so about the biblical concept concerning the Year of Jubilee; that is what I was referring to exactly. But I was not so sure people would get that, so they got the long version instead — HA!

  3. February 28, 2016 1:55 pm

    I was torn as to whether to respond at all, but I simply must make one observation. If we plan to have this conversation and make the blanket statement about the possessions that poor in the United States have, shouldn’t we also talk about the structures that make it next to impossible for the poor to thrive here? Most people have “stuff” because they have to have it or because of the capitalistic society that pushes “buy, buy, buy, and then buy some more.” Why should the poor be able to resist what the middle class and the wealthy are not able to resist? EVERYONE in this country is sucked in by its never-ending sales pitch to buy – whether is food at McDonald’s or “Every kiss begins with Kay’s.” So, let’s broaden the conversation and compare apples to apples. The poor have STUFF because they have to have it to live HERE. Few people in abject poverty in some of the countries we think about are required to live in cities where utilities are high, taxes are high, rent is high, furnishing and food costs are high. Where do we see these comparisons in the Heritage Report?

    • March 14, 2016 5:52 pm

      Thanks for joining the conversation, Elaine. There are several good topics you bring up in the conversation about poverty.

      1) Yes, our country’s economy is currently dependent on consumerism – i.e., constant consumption, the “buy, buy, buy” mantra you reference. It’s not the best economic model, especially when we have shifted from manufacturing goods to a service economy with mostly low-paying jobs. Fortunately, there is an effort to move manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.

      You pose the question, “Why should the poor be able to resist what the middle class and the wealthy are not able to resist?”
      Why, indeed? The answer is personal responsibility, a characteristic that is necessary for every functioning society, but one that is undermined by the attitude of “everyone should have what they want.” None of us, regardless of income, should expect to purchase or to have goods or experiences we cannot afford.

      How have the poor been lifted up into the middle class throughout our country’s history? By investing their personal talents and initiative in school and work; proving themselves to be responsible and worthy of promotion at their jobs (or creating their own entrepreneurial business – like Memphis’ own Moziah Bridges and Mo’s Bows); making careful, wise choices with their assets and income; and following a plan. Personal success requires personal responsibility, which includes those old fashioned virtues like thrift and self sacrifice and delayed gratification. Under the “entitlement” policies of the past 50 years, the poor have been given just enough to get by, never truly getting ahead, and made to feel dependent on handouts. When people are told they can’t make it on their own, they begin to believe it. Our human nature longs for a sense of value and personal achievement in the world. We deserve opportunity – education, jobs – not the latest fad item.

      Look at the life story of Dr. Ben Carson for a case study in what can happen to a boy born into poverty and considered the “dumbest kid” in school. His mother insisted that Ben and his brother give up television and read books. When Ben wanted cooler clothes to keep up with the popular crowd in high school, Sophia Carson turned over to him payment of the monthly bills, and invited him to spend whatever was left over. He quickly learned a life lesson that we can’t have everything we want. Now, Ben Carson is one of the most respected, esteemed, and honored men in America. He has spent and raised millions of dollars to help poor children learn to read and excel in school.

      2) Now let’s address the issue of “apples to apples” and what poor people need to survive in America. Shelter (rent), utilities, food, and clothing are basic living essentials. Most of the poor in the U.S. have these essentials covered by the government safety net. We believe the bigger problem is creating pathways to prosperity, i.e., “Getting Ahead” in the words of poverty expert Ruby Payne. That requires fixing our schools, providing job training, and ensuring an abundance of jobs with futures. It also requires fixing our materialism-driven and instant gratification culture. Our national character needs a tune-up. If you look at countries within our now-globalized society, you will find the Siren’s song of materialism and consumerism has invaded them all. And just about everywhere, not just the U.S., countries are struggling with the same issue: how to create and sustain a society that respects the dignity of every human being, and affords every human being the opportunity to live a good and responsible life? We get into trouble when we leave out that word “responsible” – or redefine it.

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