Traffic in the foyer of the Metro Action Commission’s headquarters is about average for this time of year, given the recent cold spells.
A steady stream of people, most African-American, flows toward the front desk. There, a woman holds a toddler on her hip and requests an application for utility assistance. Another complains of the whipping wind outside. “That wind, oh boy, it’ll cut you in half,” she tells a worker — twice.
The walls are painted off-white, and the low fluorescent lights make them look more dingy than they are. Tacked about are fliers — where to apply for assistance, help finding a job, information about a GED program.
What exactly the Metro Action Commission does is probably clearest to those who use it. The catchall agency, funded primarily with federal dollars as part of a national charge to reduce and ultimately eradicate poverty, provides everything from heating assistance and a preschool to help paying rent and prescriptions for seniors. It is a last stop on the way down or a first stop on the way up.
From outside this Germantown building, it’s easy to overlook the troubles inside. The years between 2000 and 2008 were generally good to Nashville. The city’s population grew by 18 percent, the housing bubble burst without showering the city in total loss, and Davidson County emerged as the bona fide powerhouse of Tennessee, accounting for nearly half of the state’s population boom and close to 30 percent of its overall tax revenue, according to a report issued last week by the Chattanooga-based Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies.
There was also a tremendous influx in downtown investment. According to figures provided by the Nashville Downtown Partnership, the total value of public and private investments in the city’s core reached $1.45 billion from 2000 to 2008. That number rises by another $2 billion when you stretch the estimate to 2013.
But all boats haven’t risen with the tide. According to a recent report issued by the Brookings Institution, poverty in Nashville has been on a sharp rise since 2000, with rates spiking between 2007 and 2008, just before the so-called Great Recession. Poverty increased 4.2 percent between 2000 and 2008, bringing Metro’s overall rate to 17.5 percent and adding more than 32,000 people to the rolls of the poor.
In a time of unprecedented cash flow to the heart of the city, more people there found themselves living below the poverty line than ever before. It is a strange phenomenon that helps explain why Nashville has so far bucked the national poverty trend, which holds that the working poor are flooding American suburbs, shedding the traditional ghettoized downtowns for the land of backyards and industrial parks.
Malcolm Getz calls it a “great inversion.”
The associate professor of economics at Vanderbilt University refers to the now-common narrative about the abandonment and subsequent repopulation — first by industry, then a population needing to follow it — of downtowns nationwide.
“Fifty years ago, there were relatively more low-skill and semiskilled jobs in the central area of the city,” Getz wrote in a recent e-mail to The City Paper. “Manufacturing, wholesaling, retailing and transportation had much more employment in the central area. The financial sector employed large numbers of pink-collar workers to manage the flow of paper in their back offices. Downtown was an economic place to assemble such a work force.”
But myriad social factors, such as the broadening of car culture and later the viral spread of home computers and the Internet, changed the way people worked and lived. In short, industry took hold in industrial parks — this is certainly true of Nashville and its current work force distribution — and wageworkers tried to follow, with limited success.
With the changing employment mix, living near downtown” doesn’t make economic sense “for lower-wage workers whose jobs are distant,” Getz said. “Lower-cost housing in suburban areas makes much more sense.”
Cynthia Croom, executive director of the Metro Action Commission, said her agency has watched on the street the behavior Brookings put to pulp.
“We’ve seen them pushed a lot harder, and in part we know that’s because a lot of people are either not employed or underemployed. Over the last several years, we’ve seen an increase in the number of people who are considered working poor.”
You might think, then, that the poverty that corresponds to a city-centric economy would follow when jobs moved outward. According to the Brookings study, however, the distribution of poverty between urban and suburban areas here largely held steady from 2000 to 2008. Slightly more than half of all those living below the poverty line — $21,834 annually for a family of four — were within the city limits. While there were parallel rises between the city and the suburbs, there was no redistribution of the impoverished in Nashville. Meanwhile, some 25 percent of the nation’s poor moved toward the edges of their cities.
This makes Nashville a curious case, said Getz, Croom and others. It has a lot to do with housing.
Economists will tell you it takes a long time for adequate, affordable housing to follow the marginally employed. There are lots of causes for the lag, but the main one is that it’s too expensive for most developers or landlords to convert housing from, say, single-family to rental units.
“The subsidies, if you look at what the federal government was doing during that time [2000-2008], they were withdrawing money from the public square, not contributing to the public square,” said Eddie Latimer, CEO of Affordable Housing Resources.
Loss of the middle class
Over that time, federal funding for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grants — a centerpiece in fighting poverty through housing at the city level — fell by 18 percent.
Likewise, Latimer said, the early part of this century saw a chunk of middle-class Nashvillians fleeing Davidson County for surrounding bedroom communities, where land was cheaper and more abundant, and where school systems were less crowded and perhaps more successful. In other words, the percentage of new poor is padded somewhat by the departure of the better established.
“I think we’re seeing the loss of the middle class at a level [in the city],” Latimer said. “The good news of the urban redevelopment ... is it attracts middle class back into the urban core. And the middle class is critical to the success of the neighborhood.”
But this is where it gets a little confusing. The possibility remains that Nashville is only bucking the suburbanization of poverty trend on paper. The city’s merged government makes it bigger than most U.S. cities in terms of square miles (in Nashville’s case, more than 500). As such, traditional boundaries considered in a lot of other places aren’t much to talk about here.
“In looking at Davidson County as a whole, much of the changes between central city and suburb occur within Davidson County that in other cities cross political boundaries,” Getz said.
David Eichenthal, president of the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies in Chattanooga, said it’s all the more reason for Nashville to think a little bigger.
“The concentration of poverty is in metropolitan areas,” he said. “Just as where those metro areas are where our greatest economic assets are, it’s also where some of the biggest economic problems are. It again points to the need for solutions that take into account the region or the metropolitan area overall.”
Just how Nashville might live up to the pledge Mayor Karl Dean made last year to reduce the poverty rate 50 percent by 2018 is perhaps most dependent on whether a new citywide initiative to help the poor — from the homeless to the chronically underemployed — is implemented in the right way.
A cocktail of development and services
Early next month, Dean’s office is expected to unveil a sprawling new program to address the rise in poverty, which Brookings estimates will have grown another 2 percent by the time 2009’s numbers are revealed.
While the players are keeping details close to the vest, one insider said to expect broad work force and economic development initiatives targeted at the working poor and low-income workers.
Former Vice Mayor Howard Gentry, now president of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Public Benefit Foundation, said reducing poverty to two basic, adversarial sides — social services versus development — is at once all too common and bunk.
“I know because of the fact that I have now been involved in city government and looked at our city in a different way, I absolutely believe that the inner core, the downtown, is the heart of this city,” Gentry told The City Paper. “As it goes, does our city go. And so it is important that we do put resources and effort into making the inner core successful, because that’s also where your economic engines are.”
Gentry, a former mayoral candidate who spent a night in a homeless camp during his 2007 campaign, was the original director of the city’s Homelessness Commission. He complimented Dean’s efforts and said the administration seems poised to act.
“I think we probably have not had a comprehensive approach in the areas of need,” Gentry said. “And need isn’t always [restricted to the poor]. And I just don’t think we have painted with a broad enough brush. I think we have an opportunity to fix that.”
For his part, Dean plans to continue plugging education as the No. 1 poverty deterrent, echoing Microsoft chairman Bill Gates’ efforts to reduce poverty nationwide via innovation and revitalization of public schools.
“The best way to end the cycle of poverty is through education, which is one of the reasons I’ve made it my top priority as mayor,” Dean said. “We know from research that high school graduates have lower unemployment rates and earn much more money over the course of their lifetime than individuals that don’t finish school. At the same time, we know students who are economically disadvantaged are at a much higher risk of not succeeding in school or dropping out of school, so the challenge is great.”