If you want to destroy a community, someone once told me, take away the men's jobs. To make a man's job search nearly impossible, burden him with a criminal record.
The baggage from a stint in a correctional institution can bleed into the institution of marriage in ways that don't bode well for single women or the economic strength of a city.
In a recent Pew Research Center survey, never-married women were asked what they wanted most in a spouse. Nearly 80 percent answered that tops on their list was a partner with a steady job. But in the Memphis metro area, there are only 59 employed young men for every 100 young single women, making this one of the worst places to find a marriageable (read: employed) man.
Money can't buy love, but it can provide the economic stability that's in short supply here in the nation's poorest metro area.
"You got to have a J-O-B if you want to be with me," sang Gwen Guthrie in the 1980s pop hit "Ain't Nothin' Goin' On But The Rent." For better or worse, our society still draws a straight line between manhood and the ability to provide, financially. When men have a criminal record, they are far more likely to be unemployed, which makes them less likely to be married. Their children are more likely to grow up poor, in a household run by a single mother.
That is where the public discussion of the family usually starts, with a hypercritical analysis of single mothers and how they raise their children. Rarely do we explore what societal pressures contribute to the rise in single motherhood or how public policy perpetuates poverty.
One obvious answer: A national obsession with mass incarceration that has only recently started to wither, as a growing body of evidence erodes the theory that higher imprisonment rates lower the crime rates.
Between 1994 and 2012, New York, which has banned for-profit prisons, cut its imprisonment rate by 24 percent and its crime rate by 54 percent, according to a September report from the Pew Charitable Trusts. During that same time period in Tennessee, where prisons are run for profit, the imprisonment rate soared 59 percent and the crime rate fell by 22 percent.
Shelby County is second only to Davidson County (Nashville) in the share of inmates it sends to state prisons. A tough-on-crime stance might win the district attorney another term, but it doesn't guarantee public safety. It does, however, help guarantee a permanent underclass.
Ex-offenders can't obtain many professional licenses and even some student loans, both of which would increase their odds of employment and better-paying jobs. And ex-offenders are barred from voting, including an estimated 19 percent of blacks in Tennessee, which gives state legislators little incentive to remake state law.
In 2010, the city of Memphis began to "ban the box" on city job applications that required men and women to state whether they had been convicted of a felony. In 2012, two Memphis Democrats managed to pass a bill that would expunge the criminal records of some ex-offenders with a single nonviolent conviction.
Every tiny step forward is met with several steps back. In its last session, the Republican-controlled legislature stiffened the penalties for a growing number of crimes and passed new laws to criminalize more behavior.
The impact is that "large numbers of men in their prime adult years are removed from their communities," said Nicole Porter, director of advocacy for The Sentencing Project. States must "create the atmosphere in which people can thrive versus people being caught in systems that weaken communities and then weaken their families," Porter said.
Since the criminal justice system disproportionately ensnares black men, it has an outsized effect on a predominately African-American metro area such as Memphis. The causes of the area's endemic poverty are many, but employment for ex-offenders is essential to the metro area's success.
"There are people who have records who have skills and drive and intelligence, who made a mistake and won't make it again," said Reid Dulberger, CEO of EDGE, Memphis' and Shelby County's economic development organization. "We can't afford to exclude them going forward. We need all hands on deck."
But unless we overhaul our criminal justice system, the Memphis area is wedded to failure.