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Time to belly up to the poverty elephant

It is no secret that different subsets of the metropolitan Memphis population are mired in living conditions that are not conducive to raising happy kids to become productive adults. 
 Tarrin McGhee

by Tarrin McGhee

Special to the Tri-State Defender

(The New Tri-State Defender has partnered with The Urban Child Institute to make sure every child has the best chance for optimal brain development during the critical first three years of each child’s life. This is one in a series of stories and columns in our campaign.)

It is no secret that different subsets of the metropolitan Memphis population are mired in living conditions that are not conducive to raising happy kids to become productive adults. Critical risk factors such as crime and unemployment (12.7 percent in Memphis) make it increasingly difficult for some local families to advance or rebound from their given situation and their children often bear the brunt of the misfortune.

These risk factors are not isolated to the inner city. They are spreading fast in suburban neighborhoods, due, in part, to the recent U.S. economic downturn. If the trends persist, the short-term and long-term effects will continue to devastate our community and lead to the perpetuation of cycles that are considered unhealthy for any progressive metropolitan area.

To truly achieve progress, we must begin to address the primary risk factor that prevents Memphis – and will ultimately prevent our children – from making significant advances: poverty.

This month, the United States Census Bureau pinpointed Memphis as the poorest city in the nation. The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey showed that 19.1 percent of residents in the Greater Memphis area live in poverty, with women and children being more likely to endure these conditions than any other demographic segment.

The call to action can’t get any louder. It’s time to confront the elephant in the room.

Poverty in Memphis and Shelby County is a risk factor that will continue to manifest without deliberate and proactive intervention.

As concerned residents, it is imperative to understand how our overall economic condition relates to community preparedness to help future generations adapt and succeed. Phyllis Betts, director of the Center for Community Building and Neighborhood Action at the University of Memphis and Research Fellow with The Urban Child Institute, says that the relation is tied to our intrinsic ability and willingness to empathize and care for others.

“It’s important to compare what is happening in the lives of more disadvantaged young people with what most of us will experience at some point with someone in our extended family,” said Betts.

“If we can see how kids in our own environment falter often through no fault of their own – but because of challenging circumstances or the failure of adults – that may make us more likely to care based on the realization that we all need help at some time or another.”

According to The Urban Child Institute (UCI), in the city of Memphis, over half of all census tracts have child poverty rates of 40 percent or higher. Last month, UCI released its 2011 Data Book – a comprehensive report on the state of Children in Memphis and Shelby County. In its sixth year, the Data Book highlights key facts and recommendations developed from extensive research on what we can do to make Memphis known as a city that cares for its children, particularly those ages 0 – 3. It includes a special interest section devoted to studies of the impact that community influences and neighborhood conditions have on child development.

Lead researchers at the Institute found that in impoverished neighborhoods, children have higher potential to become exposed to crime, drugs, violence and other social ills that make it harder for them to succeed and thrive in their environment.

Most loving parents and guardians want to raise children in healthy, stable and safe environments but more often than not, some encounter circumstances that prevent them from accomplishing this important task. In a neighborhood labeled crime-ridden or poverty stricken, parents are more likely to encounter stressful situations that may affect their ability to be warm, attentive and responsive to their child’s needs. These additional elements that contribute to a child’s upbringing can be directly linked to that child’s cognitive and behavioral development.

“Kids don’t come shrink-wrapped – the communities and neighborhoods in which they grow up matter tremendously for their development early in life,” said Catherine Joyce, UCI director of Data Management.

“Things such as crime reduction, increasing safety, and improving the quality of schools and access to resources like stores and community centers will make a world of difference in the lives of young children,” Joyce said.

Early investments and interventions in child development such as neighborhood quality and pre-K can also have long-term effects on human capital and economic development, crime reduction and help to build strong schools and communities.

Additionally, how well a community comes together to support the children that live there is a critical indicator of future progress.

“The old fashioned approach where individuals act as ‘elders’ in neighborhoods is something that needs to be cultivated among local neighborhood residents,” said Betts. “In the absence of the involvement of caring and capable adults – only the most resilient young personalities are going to succeed.”

Individuals may be fearful of intervening or not know what to do when they see a need for intervention,” she said.

“That means individuals becoming involved with organizations that can support their efforts to provide support and guidance as tutors, mentors, activity leaders and outreach agents.”

In our village, the challenges that we face are not unique, yet they are far too complex for one person, one subdivision or one neighborhood to confront alone.  

In order to have a lasting impact on our entire community, we will need to work together to make a substantial difference.  

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