For the last week or so, local residents have been digesting the news from the U.S. Census Bureau that the metropolitan Memphis area, encompassing nine counties in three states, managed to increase its population by the grand total of 888 people during the period July 1, 2015, through June 30, 2016.
This was troubling news to the boosters among us, especially since the Memphis figures compare unfavorably to the other major cities in Tennessee. We have known for some time that Nashville, against whom we have traditionally tried to compare ourselves, has put us in its rear-view mirrors, growth-wise. During the year of comparison, the state's capital city acquired 36,337 new residents, for a growth rate of 2 percent. Ours was a woeful 0.1 percent.
But Knoxville and Chattanooga also outgrew us. So did Little Rock, Arkansas. Only Jackson, Tennessee, which lost 61 residents in the year being measured, did worse than Memphis in our general geographic area. Oh, wait, that other Jackson, the one in Mississippi, also fared more poorly, coming in with a population gain of 563.
Keep in mind, too, apropos the meager growth or the Memphis metropolitan area, that the nine counties which comprise it contain at least three — Tipton and Fayette counties in Tennessee and DeSoto County in Mississippi — that we had grown accustomed to envying for their visible spurts in new, shiny subdivisions and commercial strips. That these bedroom suburbs had not managed to raise the whole metropolitan complex above the curve tells us something — not just that rural terrains, which make up so much of the greater Memphis area, have been steadily shedding population (that much we knew) but that the dominant economy of Memphis, focused on our much-vaunted status as a distribution center, is not one that generates appreciable numbers of either high incomes or skilled jobs.
If it comes to it, we can call the roll of this or that new industry come to town, but there are not enough of them to render us competitive with high-growth urban areas. And we can also make up a list of major manufacturers or corporate entities that have deserted us over the years.
One of the bragging points of our current state administration is the Tennessee Promise program which relegates significant funding to pay tuition at Tennessee's fairly impressive number of community colleges. No doubt 9th District Congressman Steve Cohen, a skeptic regarding that program's value, has been influenced in his views by the fact that this program is largely financed by monies originally raised by proceeds from the state's lottery, brought into being by then state Senator Cohen to provide college scholarships for needy students with proven academic potential.
Cohen sees Tennessee Promise as going in another direction altogether — toward the provision of a generous supply of worker cadres for relatively low-paying jobs in the distribution industry. That may or may not be an accurate view, but one thing is certain: On the Monopoly board of urban America, the Memphis of today would be represented by a token in the shape of a warehouse.
In any case, the new census figures have us asking ourselves: Are we, as a community, merely standing still? And, if so, what is the alternative?