Here’s a terrible game. We’ll throw some statistics out, and you, the reader, can assign your own adjectives to them.
As of 2009, 13,467 Davidson County families — not individuals, mind you — lived on less than $15,000 per year.
A full 16.9 percent — 107,000 people — of the county’s total population is at or below the poverty level.
The rate of students who participate in free or reduced lunch programs in Nashville has grown from 71.9 percent in 2007 to 72.8 in 2008 and to 75.9 in 2009.
About 11,000 people in Nashville experience at least one period of homelessness each year.
Disconcerting? Depressing? Bleak?
Bleak is right. It has that kind of gray, Dickensian feel that really seems to capture the local and national economic reality as it is in the early 21st century, the consumptive child laborer of time periods.
But former Metro Nashville Vice Mayor Howard Gentry, chairman of the Metro Social Services Commission — which last week released the second annual Community Needs Evaluation report from which the above statistics came — said “bleak,” as perfect as it sounds, might exaggerate things a bit.
“Bleak is all-in — it’s a word that I wouldn’t use. It is getting worse,” Gentry said. “Bleak, to me, if I had to come up with a definition of it, speaks to an impossible situation. It is getting worse, and it’s serious.”
The Community Needs Evaluation seeks to identify the largest gaps between major economic problems — lack of affordable housing, unemployment, general poverty — and the ability of local service providers, or government agencies and nonprofit organizations, to address them. The hope is that pointing out those gaps will lead to a better use of resources.
The very predictable outcome
The No. 1 problem area, identified by a plurality (33.5 percent) of survey participants, should come as no surprise to anyone: workforce and economic opportunity, or rather the lack of both. A huge number of people are out of work. Nashville, which has fared better than many major cities in the past couple of years, has consistently had an unemployment rate of more than 9 percent throughout this year. That, of course, doesn’t even account for people who’ve given up looking for a job.
“We’re seeing this kind of occurrence all over the nation. And we in Nashville are not exempt from what is happening throughout the nation,” Gentry said. “We’re seeing people experiencing economic difficulty who’ve never experienced it before. And so I think an increase in numbers and circumstances are adding to the problem.”
Of course, there’s only so much local government and charities can do to address that. For its part, the report recommends that Nashville service agencies take the long view. Use this time to implement training programs for when (hopefully not if) the economy does bounce back.
“In order to address the challenge of unemployment, people who are unemployed will need to be trained, prepared for, and placed in jobs in the growth sectors of the local economy,” the report says. It goes on to cite an August report by the Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness that predicts the region will add 151,000 jobs by 2019. Some of the biggest growth sectors predicted are in professional and business services, education, health and education services, financial services, and construction, most of which require some amount of training or formal education. Unskilled manufacturing jobs, on the other hand, are not expected to rebound.
Dinah Gregory, director of planning and coordination for Metro Social Services, said existing training and education programs have to be improved.
“Last year and this year, this was the highest identified need,” she said. “But there are little nuances within that need. For example, and this information came from Paul Haynes [executive director of the Nashville Career Advancement Center]: They pay for people who go to school and get training. But it’s only going to people who can go to school or training full time. If someone’s who’s poor and still working — they need to provide for their family — and they want to go back to school part time, there are no resources to help them.”
The No. 2 problem area identified in the survey is housing resources. The main issues related to housing are a dearth of available emergency funds for utility bills and rent, long waits for public housing (as long as three years in recent memory, said Gregory), and maybe most important, rent affordability for very low-income residents. (This is borne out in the statistics. According to the report, more than 37 percent of Nashville homeowners and 47 percent of renters were spending more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing.)
That last one can perhaps be blamed in part on federal benchmarks as to what constitutes “fair market rent” in Nashville, which determines to whom housing resources are given out. FMR is what a low-income family “should” be able to afford, paying no more than 30 percent of their gross income. Low-income renters are eligible for subsidies for homes at or below FMR. However, just as the Census sets the poverty line too low, the Department of Housing and Urban Development may be setting the FMR level too high.
The report: “The Fair Market Rent (FMR) in the Nashville/Davidson Metropolitan Nashville Statistical Area for 2010 for a two-bedroom apartment was $807. To afford the FMR (rental fees plus utilities) without paying more than 30 percent of income on housing, a household would need to earn $2,690 per month, or $32,280 per year. This amount is 176 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of three and 146 percent of the poverty level for a family of four.”
Housing for the homeless, chronic and temporary, is not meeting the needs either. Some 11,000 Nashvillians will experience some period of homelessness in an average year, according to the report. This creates a need for more transitional housing, which is, of course, a hot-button issue for neighbors.
“We have to start working together as a city,” Gentry said. “As it relates to the not-in-my-backyard mentality, we have to work to educate and inform those people who really believe that their lives and their quality of life will be challenged by having those who are not as fortunate as we are in their midst. We don’t have that mentality when it comes to our family members. We don’t have it when it comes to our friends.”
The government’s role
The ongoing recession is the problem that underlies all the others — lack of food, shelter, access to child care, everything — identified in the report.
“I don’t believe it’s an indication of a lack of effort on the part of those who are providing the services,” Gentry said. “I just think the caseloads are growing, and the ability to service those needs with the existing resources that we have is causing a very difficult task for those providing those services.”
Some argue that greater investment in public sector resources and employment could help. Improved government services would not only serve the needs of the poor better but require additional workers, thus addressing both service gaps and employment. But Gentry said that it’s a financially unrealistic solution.
“It would be great if the public sector had more to invest, but unfortunately from the national level to the local level, the economy is suffering, just as individuals are suffering,” he said. “Unfortunately the public sector is not swimming in resources.”
That might sound strange given that the Metropolitan Nashville government is building a $1 billion convention-hotel center, using bond issues that will be repaid from tourism taxes, not to mention ongoing plans for a riverfront amphitheater and a new baseball stadium. Gentry said he was in favor of the convention center, that Nashville should “not stop progressing” even though social needs are great. But when asked if tax dollars from future tourism-related projects should be dedicated to social services, he said he’d like to see it happen, stopping short of saying it “should” happen. Still, he specifically mentioned low-income housing programs as a possible beneficiary of such a tie-in.
“I would love to see that happen,” he said. “I would love to get to a point where that could become a reality.”
Methodology and problem areas
The Community Needs Evaluation report uses a combination of Census data and what it calls the Grassroots Community Needs Survey. The survey, conducted between January and April, “was administered to participants who were asked to identify the greatest need in each issue” — a list of categories that included child care, economic opportunity, food, health care, housing, neighborhood development and workforce development — and “the largest gap between the services now available and what is needed in the community.”
There were 1,787 respondents this year, 50 more than in 2009. To make sure that Metro Social Services was getting the right kind of respondents (as in low-income), the survey was given where those respondents were likely to be. Surveys were handed out to people looking for federal income tax help from the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, a free tax preparation initiative operated by the Nashville Alliance for Financial Independence (a subsidiary of United Way).
As for the statistics contained in the report, Gregory said that while the data on poverty and critical needs is fairly extensive, it was impossible to provide a complete picture. Most notably, this is because of the May floods (again, the survey only went from January to April, and the newest Census data was from 2009), a discrepancy identified in the report.
But there are also more pervasive, perennial issues, like Census underreporting in poor and minority neighborhoods, and the presence of undocumented immigrants, for whom there is scant
“We do not have a way to account for those,” Gregory said. “We are using the official Census information, which we know may not be complete.”
And there’s more. The Census data on poverty that is available is based on a flawed model, said Gregory.
“In looking at poverty, it’s important to understand that real poverty, human poverty means more than just income,” she said. “The Census uses an outdated formula to compute poverty. It was developed in the 1960s, when people spent at least a third of their income on food. The ratio of spending has changed.”
Asked whether real poverty might be even worse than the already-bad number in the report, Gregory said, “That is a real possibility.”