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VOL. 131 | NO. 81 | Friday, April 22, 2016

Memphis’ Shrinking Population Cause for Concern

By Madeline Faber

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Even as Memphis has grown larger through annexing surrounding communities, its population has steadily dwindled due to outmigration to the surrounding suburbs. Inner-city struggles will become more pronounced if this region’s wealthiest tax base continues that outward pattern, national experts say.

In 1950, Memphis was packed with 7,780 people per square mile. That figure is more like 1,915 people per square mile now, according to data from a 2014 study on the Memphis Metro economy completed by The Brookings Institute.

Job opportunities have followed the outward migration of Memphis’ wealth to the suburbs.

While 81 percent of regional jobs are located in Shelby County, two-thirds of job growth in the last 10 years has occurred in the surrounding counties, the study states.

A limited transit system keeps those jobs out of reach for many Memphians. And with a decreasing tax base due to a shrinking population, the cards are stacked against the city.

The impact of those demographic shifts on the local economy will be covered April 28 at the inaugural RegionSmart Conference. The conference, which is organized by a group of mayors representing 14 Mid-South municipalities, will focus on other issues of regional importance like mass transit and workforce development.

“Our metropolitan area, compared to other metropolitan areas, is not growing,” said Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland. “I think many people do care about the future of Memphis, but not all, so I'd like to grow that.”


Matt Chase, executive director of the National Association of Counties, said that Memphis is off to a good start in regional dialogue, but it’s slower to pace with other growing cities because of its racial and economic disparity.

“But still the region is going to have to do more. Because you've got issues with disparity, high poverty levels, and you're going to need to think a little bit differently and tackle some uncomfortable issues,” Chase said. “People think they aren't impacted by moving out to suburbs, but they are.”


James Johnson, a professor with the University of North Carolina and director of its Urban Investment Strategies Center, said that one of Memphis’ greatest opportunities for change is awakening the white retirees of the suburbs to the inner city’s chronic issues.

“The challenge is to get aged, empty-nesters to understand that they do have a dog in the K-12 education fight. It's called the future competitiveness of the region,” Johnson said.

The Memphis Metropolitan Statistical Area can be segregated into three distinct population groups, Johnson said.


WHAT: The 2016 regional strategy conference presented by the Mid-South Mayors’ Council

WHEN: April 28, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

WHERE: The Halloran Centre, 203S. Main St.

Register at regionsmart.org.

One population can be identified as having a racial generation gap, where voting-age adults are mostly white and school-aged children are mostly non-white.

“Their kids are out of education. They're mostly concerned with retirement, amenities, crime and safety, and they vote in their self-interest,” he said.

Another population is identified as majority-minority, where children and adults are both mostly non-white.

“There’s lots of interest in public education, but these counties are low-wealth counties. There's not enough money to go around to educate,” he said.

The third group he’s identified through his research is the majority-majority population where education is well funded. Minority students, who make up a fifth of the student body in these areas of the MSA, are not well represented in college prep tracks.

An overarching concern he has with the Memphis MSA region is “hyper-racial residential segregation.” This dynamic, he explains, is where white and non-white neighborhoods live side-by-side, and the median income crests and plummets within a limited area.

“It's a hyper-segregation pattern and these neighborhoods are separate and unequal and probably worse than the year of Brown-versus-the Board of Education,” he said.

Poverty is concentrated in the Memphis MSA, with 40 percent of households in certain neighborhoods hitting below the poverty level. In these areas, some neighborhood schools grant nearly 100 percent of their students free or reduced-fee lunch.

“You should care, especially if you care about employers. They recruit labor globally, so you know they're going to be looking broader than Memphis or the region to recruit talent. And there's nothing that they can't find out about you without ever visiting you. You can't mislead them about your education and training,” he said.

The suburbs are not insulated from poverty and racial inequality of the inner-city, he added. When prospective employers evaluate an area based on its educational attainment and profitability, they look at the data based on the entire region. With a chronically disinvested education system, the next generation of Memphis’ labor force won’t be able to pull Memphis out of its stagnant growth.

“You can't compete as a region, you can't thrive and prosper, when you leave that many kids behind being uneducated or poorly educated for the workplace,” Johnson said.

PROPERTY SALES 53 210 10,146
MORTGAGES 53 214 11,160
BUILDING PERMITS 245 474 22,646
BANKRUPTCIES 271 271 6,490