The two of us do not currently live in poverty. By random chance, we were born into privileged families, and this privilege has kept us from hunger, homelessness, and financial insecurity. It is not something we deserve, or are worthy of, and it is certainly not an excuse to turn a blind eye to the vastly different circumstances that one in five Memphians live under.
Here in Germantown, the median household income is $159,000 a year. We have vibrant, well funded schools, personal transportation for almost everyone, and a poverty rate one fifth of the national average. This affluence has provided an ‘excuse’ for the citizens in our community to overlook the plight of those around us. Twenty miles north, the citizens of Frayser earn wages in the second percentile nationwide, with seventy four percent of children living in poverty. Our privilege can amplify voices like these. We can no longer afford to stand idle.
The most common misconception in the fight against poverty is that we are doing all we can, that our strategy is working. In reality, however, ‘band-aid’ approaches like food drives and welfare are cop-out solutions that provide only temporary fixes and fail to address the root of the problem. Food banks allow mothers to provide their children with just enough to avoid starvation, but they don’t enable them to truly escape impoverishment. Welfare might provide enough money for a family to scrape by, but as soon as a worker is even half a dollar above the cutoff line for financial aid, they lose all benefits. This makes low-income families reluctant to take opportunities for higher wages, essentially trapping workers in poverty. Small “fixes” like insignificant wage raises and the encouragement of education without the provision of monetary support are equally useless. While these actions are well-meant, without significant legal action and new policies that focus on preventing poverty altogether, significant change is unachievable. This lack of reform is directly reflected in the poverty trends over the past fifty years. Poverty percentages have risen and fallen aimlessly, reaching insignificant highs and lows with no real trends or changes. If food drives and welfare stamps are working, it certainly isn’t showing in the data. Thirty four million people in the U.S and nearly 200,000 people in Memphis live in poverty. We are not doing nearly enough.
So what steps can be taken? Primarily, we can address individual groups that are heavily in poverty, and locate the root causes of their impoverishment. For example, one in four single mother households are considered to be in poverty. Upon closer inspection, this is largely due to the near inability of a mother to care for her children and pursue higher education and a subsequent lucrative career. Impoverished people also might not have access to a personal vehicle. However, if policymakers were to implement reforms to public transportation and provide for free childcare, as well as invest in free higher education, single mothers would be able to not only safely leave their children for the day, but also gain access to the resources they need for a solid career in the job market. It is also important that we implement systems that will aid those who are already impoverished. Poorer citizens often lack access to personal vehicles. This prevents them from accepting jobs outside of their community, and traps them in lower paying careers. Reforming public transportation is a wonderful preventative for this, and in places like Memphis, a desperately needed one.
As privileged, relatively wealthy citizens, it is our responsibility to take a stand against poverty. We have the opportunity to use our privilege to amplify the voices of those who are less fortunate and advocate for reform. We will contact our local and national policymakers, argue for change, and protest against policies that may inhibit the goal. We are going to push tirelessly for what is long overdue. We must fight poverty with policy.
Bureau, US Census. “Income and Poverty in the United States: 2019.” The United States Census Bureau, 15 Sept. 2020, www.census.gov/library/publications/2020/demo/p60-270.html.
“Frayser Neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee (TN), 38127 Detailed Profile.” Frayser Neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee (TN), 38127 Subdivision Profile - Real Estate, Apartments, Condos, Homes, Community, Population, Jobs, Income, Streets, www.city-data.com/neighborhood/Frayser-Memphis-TN.html.
“Germantown, Tennessee Population 2020.” Germantown, Tennessee Population 2020 (Demographics, Maps, Graphs), worldpopulationreview.com/us-cities/germantown-tn-population.
Stebbins, Samuel, and Thomas C. Frohlich. “The Poverty Rates for Every Group in the US: From Age and Sex to Citizenship Status.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 28 Feb. 2020, www.usatoday.com/story/money/2019/11/06/united-states-poverty-rate-for-every-group/40546247/.
“U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: Memphis City, Tennessee.” Census Bureau QuickFacts, www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/memphiscitytennessee/AGE295219.