Memphis wants Promise Zone status, despite past failures of anti-poverty programs


By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog

MEMPHIS — City officials will work hard to persuade the federal government to grant Promise Zone status to their city, according to U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis.

But has the federal government’s previous attempts to fight poverty even made a dent in the problem?

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Memphis had a poverty rate of 26.2 percent. Since 1990, the city’s poverty rate has never dipped below 20 percent. The 1990 Census reported the poverty rate as 23.0 percent, although that rate went down to 20.6 percent for the 2000 Census.

“The business of poverty now generates at least $5.3 billion a year as an economic driver in the city,” according to a 2012 Memphis Commercial Appeal editorial.

U.S. Rep. Cohen

“The combination of direct payments to poor people living in Memphis and the money generated and spent by hundreds of nonprofit organizations, government anti-poverty programs and poverty-related businesses easily tops $5 billion a year now,” the paper said, adding that doesn’t count the work churches or charities do within the city.

“In 1980, the federal, state and local funds coming into Memphis to fight poverty stood at about $155 million. In 2012, those direct payments to fight poverty will top $1.5 billion.”

Quoting 2010 U.S. Census figures, the paper reported that Memphis is among the three poorest large cities in the United States.

“Poverty Inc. is a big business. A growing business. A business with the assumed goal of reducing poverty in this city,” the newspaper said.

Cohen, nevertheless, said Promise Zone status is critical for the city.

“Memphis deserves substantial support from the federal government to help recover from the devastating impacts of the Great Recession,” Cohen said, adding he is working with Mayor AC Wharton on the issue.

“I am doing all within my power to ensure that the administration gives Memphis the consideration it deserves for the next round of Promise Zone designations — it’s a great way for us to eliminate concentrated poverty and increase the economic vitality of the city.”

President Barack Obama recently designated five areas as Promise Zones, whereby government officials are said to collaborate with people representing the business, faith-based organizations and and nonprofit communities to enhance economic development and reduce poverty.

PROMISE ZONES: Obama wants to use federal resources to fight poverty. Will Memphis be a Promise Zone?

Obama will designate 15 more Promise Zones during the next three years, using resources from various federal agencies, including the departments of Justice, Education, and Agriculture, according to the federal Housing and Urban Development’s website.

Philadelphia, for instance, will receive assistance for job-training skills and help developing a supermarket that provides healthy food, HUD said.

Officials from Cohen’s and Wharton’s offices did not return Tennessee Watchdog’s requests for comment, nor did anyone from HUD.

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