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Why Alleviating Poverty in Inner Memphis Matters

Last week, ICIC released a new set of data that highlighted the perseverance of poverty within the urban core. Despite significant growth in suburban poverty, inner cities remain key battlegrounds for fighting concentrated and persistent poverty.

Memphis, TN is illustrative. ICIC has taken a deep dive into the numbers and found the following:

  • Inner city Memphis poverty rate: 36%
  • Rest of Memphis poverty rate: 6%
  • Suburban Memphis poverty rate: 11%

Memphis is the only city within its whole metropolitan statistical area (MSA), which comprises 10 counties across three states, with over 75,000 residents. We know that cities serve as the anchors to their MSAs, and as such, Memphis is this region’s economic anchor. But what that also means is that the region’s primary anchor struggles to fight poverty and its associated challenges.

As we noted last week, poverty alleviation strategies that focus on the inner city can offer the greatest impact on the lives of residents. In Memphis, this couldn’t be more accurate. Despite being home to only 28% of the region’s entire population, inner city Memphis represents 62% of the region’s population living in poverty.  Memphis has the single largest inner city in the entire South East region (by population). The South East includes fourteen states and D.C.: LA, AR, MS, AL, FL, GA, SC, NC, TN, KY, VA, MD, DE, and WV.

The concentration of poverty within such a small geographic area – inner city Memphis represents only 3% of the total MSA land area – means that poverty alleviation strategies implemented in the inner city can reach a significant number of people. These strategies can then be replicated throughout the region.

Over the past several years, for example, policy and business leaders have been working together to grow the Memphis biotech industry. Several biotech companies already exist, particularly related to the manufacturing of medical devices and organic chemicals. In order to help the cluster really flourish, upgrading the local workforce was critical. In inner city Memphis, 19% of the population is unemployed. Workforce development programs geared towards these residents have the ability to reach a high number of people that, in turn, offer the growing industry a talented pool of potential employees.

The Memphis Bioworks Foundation has spearheaded these efforts, and new community development initiatives aim to connect Memphis businesses with one another and with employees. “You can have buildings and companies, but without a trained and skilled workforce, it doesn’t matter,” says Foundation President Dr. Steven Bares.

As the local biotech industry grows, new jobs offer a concrete way to lift many of Memphis’s inner city residents out of poverty. Business Tennessee elaborates: “Future biotech jobs will pay better than your typical logistics or warehouse worker. Biotech jobs could include anything from a machinist who works with titanium for the latest orthopedic device or a laboratory technician in a highly regulated drug manufacturing facility.”

Cluster-based strategies like these are particularly useful in transforming inner city economies. Benefits include efficient access to specialized inputs, services, employees, information and training programs; as well as easier commercialization of new products and formation of new businesses. As the cluster develops, the business community will strengthen—thereby driving regional economic performance. The key is to initially channel resources into inner city neighborhoods where the impact will be the greatest.

So while the geography of Memphis’s inner city is small and the challenges it faces are broad, it also holds the greatest significance in terms of poverty alleviation strategies in the South East.


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