Maximizing Poverty

How schools data make Memphis look like it has no middle class.

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The federal government has a new way to measure poverty.

According to the Census Bureau report that came out this week, 49 million Americans, not the previously reported 46 million, are living in poverty. Sixteen percent of the total population, and 25 percent of black Americans, are poor.

Bad news, but if you measure poverty the way Memphis City Schools, Shelby County Schools, and the state of Tennessee measure it, you could conclude — mistakenly — that the poverty rate among black Memphians is three or four times that. Here's how:

Start by taking out all the people who live outside Memphis but in Shelby County, even if they grew up in Memphis, work in Memphis, and have family in Memphis. This, of course, is what we do now with our separate school systems that will stay in place until 2013.

Next, take out all the people who live in Memphis but don't have children in Memphis public schools, the families with children who go to optional schools or private schools, and the families with school-age children who are not poor by any definition.

Define "poor" as a family of four with an annual income of $41,348. Classify a school, and by extension its neighborhood, as poor even if only 40 percent of the families fall below this standard. When federal funds are at stake, it pays to look poor.

Define "black schools" as all-black schools, not schools with 70 percent or 80 percent black majorities.

This is how you get to "Memphis: America's Poor Black Racially Torn City." This is how you get to the Memphis City Schools and Tennessee Report Card finding that 89,784 of the 103,500 students are economically disadvantaged and that the whole system is Title 1, which is government-speak for poor.

And this is how you could conclude, by reading an article last week in The New York Times on the schools merger that Memphis has no black middle class and an impoverished central city and is doomed to repeat the white flight of busing and 1973.

Like it or not, the schools merger is the window through which America is going to view Memphis and public education for a while. As the Times noted, it is "the largest school district consolidation in American history."

For all its problems, however, Memphis is not as poor as it looks in school stats. Nor is it necessarily doomed to repeat the past, as some of those quoted in the story believe it is, including Joe Clayton, the 79-year-old Shelby County school board member and former principal who left MCS for Briarcrest Christian School in 1974.

"There is the same element of fear," Clayton told the Times.

Also interviewed was Marcus Pohlmann, a political science professor at Rhodes College and author of books on racial politics and school integration in Memphis.

"There are no middle-class black schools in Memphis," Pohlmann said in the story. "They're all poor."

I know Clayton and Pohlmann and respect both of them. Their statements are right, as far as they go. I have a quibble with them, but I think it's an important quibble.

You can kill a city with statistics, and you can kill it by tying it to its past of racial separation and strife. I'm not crazy about Memphis being America's "civil rights city" in pro sports and national journalism and literature.

It isn't forever 1974, even though city schools are more segregated now than they were then. The separation of county and city school data makes Memphis look worse than consolidated districts in Tennessee and other states. The buildings and the books are newer. There is an incoming corps of young teachers, principals, and foundation money. The school boards are at least meeting together now, which, as their colleagues in Hamilton County and Chattanooga suggested, may be the main thing.

Black doesn't equal poor. There are middle-class schools in Memphis that are majority black. The 7,800 white kids in MCS can't skew the data that much. The black poverty rate here is not three or four times the national rate. You only get there by using different methods and data. And with all due respect to Joe Clayton, he is not the future. The future is Kenya Bradshaw, who was also quoted in the Times article. I asked her what she thought of it.

"Overall, I thought it was a good story, but I thought the call to action for the community was missing," she said. "The story portrays the challenges, but I think we need to seize this opportunity and challenge our community to come together."

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