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VOL. 133 | NO. 47 | Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Freeman: Wide Income, Poverty Gaps Persist in Shelby County

By Bill Dries

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The president of the National Civil Rights Museum says the national attention that comes with the 50th anniversary of the 1968 sanitation workers strike and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination can be a guide for the nation as well as Memphis.

Terri Lee Freeman

“I think that Memphis addressing the issues of the past, where we are presently and where we are headed is the best picture we can present,” Terri Lee Freeman said on the WKNO/Channel 10 program “Behind The Headlines.”

“I think the fact that people are thinking about where do we go from here is a very positive thing,” she said in response to a question about criticism of the city administration last month by CNN and NPR commentator Angela Rye.

Rye was critical of the city for not having come far enough since 1968, particularly in combatting childhood poverty.

“I think the worst thing we could do would be to sugarcoat where we are,” Freeman said. “I think it’s important for us to be honest about where we are and optimistic about where we are headed.”

The museum and the University of Memphis released a report last week that tracks poverty in Shelby County in the 50 years since the historic events of 1968.

The report found median income for black Shelby Countians remains consistently about half that of white Shelby Countians.

Elena Delavega

“What really struck me is that African-Americans have made tremendous gains in education. They have taken advantage of every opportunity afforded to them,” said Elena Delavega, the lead researcher who has been studying poverty in Memphis as associate professor of social work at the University of Memphis since 2011. “But the median wage has remained about half that of whites – pretty consistently through the decades – regardless of what else is happening in the economy or in civil rights.”

Freeman says the local data reflects what is happening nationally, with one notable exception.

“Honestly, I think you could go to almost any urban center in America and you would find some iteration of this data. I don’t think that this is specific to Memphis,” she said. “Now, I do think that the child poverty for African-American children is very high. I don’t think you’ll find that in every urban center.”

According to the report, 48 percent of African-American children in Shelby County live in poverty. The rate is more than four times greater than the percentage of white children locally living in poverty.

Freeman plans to present the study to business leaders at a Greater Memphis Chamber breakfast.

“You can’t start everywhere. But you can begin to create a plan and a path forward that begins to chip away at some of this. It’s not a public-sector issue or a private-sector issue or a nonprofit-sector issue. It’s an entire community issue and we have to deal with it from that perspective.”

Terri Lee Freeman,
President of the National Civil Rights Museum

“You can’t start everywhere. But you can begin to create a plan and a path forward that begins to chip away at some of this,” she said. “It’s not a public-sector issue or a private-sector issue or a nonprofit-sector issue. It’s an entire community issue and we have to deal with it from that perspective.”

Delavega said the median income gap begins with lower starting pay in private companies where there is more flexibility than in public-sector jobs. And she said that decision is hard to overcome even if there are equal pay raises along the path of a career.

“But when we look at private industry and private corporations, the gap remains,” she said. “We can think a starting salary that is a couple of thousand dollars less is not very great and it might not even be intentional. It might just be some internal bias operating. When you look 20 years down the road because salary increases are going to be a percent of the initial salary, the gap is going to be tremendously high.”

Delavega says the jury is still out on pay raises and bonuses as a result of federal tax reform. She said bonuses can be even more subjective than pay raises in private companies and executives making decisions on pay “have the opportunity to make those corrections every single day.”

Freeman said one way around the subjectivity is a formula-based bonus.

“Everybody gets whatever the formula is. Now, obviously, it’s based on the number that they start at,” she said. “There are more companies going to a bonus versus an increase in salary. That gives you a bump in that year but it doesn’t help if you are building retirement. It doesn’t build your salary over time. So what we end up transferring with, is again, a deflated salary.”

“Behind The Headlines,” hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

The poverty report concludes that childhood poverty rates may be higher for African-Americans in Shelby County because of the high rate of incarceration for black males locally.

That rate has increased 50 percent for African-Americans since 1980 while the incarceration rate for whites has dropped. Before the 1980s, the incarceration rate locally for black citizens and white citizens was “very, very similar,” according to Delavega.

Freeman said the increase for African-Americans amounts to “disproportionate minority contact.”

“And it appears to me there were policy decisions that were made that impacted the number of times people came into contact with the criminal justice system because of the consistency between the local data and the national data,” she said. “There were some decisions that were made that have impacted how we deal with criminal justice in our country and I believe there are some policy decisions that can be made that could also begin to help us decrease that.”

Delavega says it began with high suspension rates in the legacy Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools systems before the merger and demerger of public education locally.

“The rate of punishment and expulsion and suspension for African-American children both in former Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools … was up to 700 times higher for African-American male students than for white students and for other students.”

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