Memphis Murder Mystery? No, Just Mistaken Identity
Lt. Barnes at the Memphis Zoo
Rosin leads her story with the observations of one Memphis police officer, Lt. Doug Barnes, who sets the tone for the article. He reports that certain neighborhoods—which Rosin calls “suburban” but are actually within the Memphis city limits—used to be quite peaceful until the displaced families, gang members and violence moved in. This is asserted despite a long history from the early 1990s of high levels of crime in Memphis. It had high levels of crime long before the current spike.
She then reports Barnes’ view of working in this largely African-American area. Barnes tells Rosin that “my job right now is to protect the people from all the animals.” The “animals,” we easily infer, are the drug dealers and other criminals, who the article confounds with former residents of public housing. Without providing any proof that the former residents of Memphis’ public housing projects are responsible for the rise in crimes, the article uses this racist code language to stigmatize both the tenants and the programs. It is not guilt by association but by mere proximity.
Ghetto Poverty and Its Discontents
So has Rosin really found the answer to the “murder mystery,” as she claims? How did we get here as a nation?
In the first Clinton administration, reformers did make serious, though relatively small-scale, efforts to address ghetto poverty and the ways in which the nation’s housing policies had concentrated that poverty in dangerous and neglected racial ghettos. This was a response to increased attention, in the media as well as scholarly research, to a persistently poor “urban underclass.” The idea was to do something about the fact that policies meant to help the poor had effectively isolated them instead. The other major aim was to learn, through careful research, how to do a better job of offering the inner-city poor more choices than life in “the projects.”
But broader market forces and policy changes figure in the picture as well. In the late 1990s, poverty in the U.S. declined, due in large measure to a strong economy, with relatively full employment and the first wage increases on the bottom in roughly a generation, and a few specific policies—most notably an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, a wage supplement for the working poor. As a result, the number of Americans living below the poverty line declined from 38 million (14.8 percent of the population) in 1992 to 31.6 million (11.3 percent) by 2000. By 2005, however, that number had grown to 36.9 million (12.6 percent), thanks to a “jobless” economy recovery, widening inequality in wages and wealth, and the Bush administration’s shredding of an already fragile social safety net.
In the U.S., more than in other democratic countries, poor people are often concentrated in neighborhoods with other poor people. In particular, low-income African Americans and Latinos—who face the additional burden of racial discrimination by landlords, real estate agents, and banks—are more likely than low-income whites to live in high-poverty areas.
In 1990, about 17 percent of the poor in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas lived in very high-poverty census tracts—those where at least 40 percent of the residents are poor. Another 14 percent of the poor lived in moderately high-poverty census tracts—where between 20 percent and 40 percent of residents are poor. These are typically referred to as “ghettos,” and they are, in almost all cases and by a large margin, majority-minority areas in terms of racial make-up. Most people who live in ghettos are not poor, but most of them are just a notch above poverty. People living in the high-poverty areas, the vast majority of whom work hard and play by the rules, face the nation’s most dangerous streets, the worst schools, and the poorest parks and other amenities, on average, in our society.
During the 1990s, as overall poverty declined, the proportion of the poor in the 100 largest metro areas living in very high (40 percent+) poverty areas declined to 12 percent, while the proportion of the poor living in moderately high (20 to 40 percent) poverty areas remained the same, at 14 percent. Combined, the proportion of the poor living in ghettoes dropped from 31 percent to 26 percent—from 7.1 million to 6.7 million poor people. In Memphis, the number of people living in high-poverty neighborhoods (those with more than 40 percent poverty) dropped to 68,987 in 2000, down from 127,030 in 1990, while, as Rosin reported, the number of people living in neighborhoods where 20 to 40 percent are poor increased to 227,468, up from 148,631.
Nationwide, poverty concentration in high-poverty neighborhoods dropped both because some poor people stayed put as their incomes rose (making them no longer poor) and because some poor people moved to other neighborhoods. Though no estimates are available to indicate how much of the decline owes to one factor versus the other, Rosin’s comment about “tens of thousands” of poor people migrating from inner-city ghettos skips that distinction entirely.
But more important, this “deconcentration” of poverty was not, as Rosin implies, the accomplishment of low-income housing policy, which affects a small share of all households. It had much more to do with market forces—a strong job market and gentrification of urban neighborhoods—as well as income transfers, from the EITC most important, to the working poor.
Peter Dreier, an NHI board member, is E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and director of the Urban & Environmental Policy program at Occidental College in Los Angeles. He is coauthor of Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century and several other books.
Xavier de Souza Briggs is associate professor of sociology and urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and editor of The Geography of Opportunity: Race and Housing Choice in Metropolitan America.