MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - In the last months of his life, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. aligned himself with Memphis sanitation workers fighting for higher wages.
However, 50 years after his death, Memphis workers remain impoverished. Memphis is the poorest metropolitan area in America, according to a University of Memphis study.
"The Poverty Report: Memphis Since MLK" is a study published by the National Civil Rights Museum in partnership with the University of Memphis Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change. The study measured the economic progress made by Memphians since King's assassination.
Economic equality was a point of emphasis for King during his many trips to Memphis in the spring of 1968.
"The vast majority of negros in our country are still perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity," King said during his Mountaintop Speech.
University of Memphis Assistant Professor Dr. Elena Delavega spent the last two years compiling data on employment, education, and incarceration. Those are three factors she says impact poverty and place barriers in front of thousands of people in Memphis and Shelby County.
"What we have in this society are signs that say people with money this way, poor people that other way, and it is still separate and still unequal," Delavega said.
According to Delavega's research, since 1968, African Americans in Shelby County achieved a 76 percent increase in securing high school diplomas and higher education. Yet the median income for African Americans remained at approximately half of what whites make.
The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 an hour.
Unlike most states, Tennessee does not have its own minimum wage law and does not allow local municipalities to set a higher minimum wage than the federal rate.
A "living wage" is the hourly rate a person must earn to support their family.
According to MIT's Living Wage Calculator, the living wage for a single adult in Shelby County is $10.78 an hour. The poverty wage is $5 an hour.
"At its core, poverty is not having enough money, so if people have enough money, they are not poor," journalist Wendi Thomas said.
Thomas examines what type of wages workers in Shelby County are paid. She sent a wage survey to the 25 largest employers in Shelby County, asking what they pay their entry level workers.
The Poverty Report highlights a rise in white collar jobs for African American workers. In 1950, only eight percent of African Americans had white collar jobs. In 2016, that number was 52 percent.
Latoya Polk is one of those white collar workers. After nine months of unemployment, the single mother of two snagged a job as a loan officer.
For the last three years, she has made above minimum wage, but she still makes far less than the $24.92 an hour that is the estimated living wage for her family.
"I have rent; I have utilities; I have car insurance; I have groceries," Polk said.
With an autistic son and a busy teenage daughter, Polk has her hands full, but she still finds time to chase her dreams as a stand-up comedian.
Her jokes landed her a spot on Kevin Hart's Comedy Central show Hart of the City. The money she earns from comedy gigs helps pay bills and put her children in extra curricular activities.
"There are things that you have to do to make the dollar stretch, to make sure that your kids are fine from month to month," Polk said.
Polk never finished college, but she has a different plan for her children.
"I don't want my daughter to become a part of this vicious cycle, of just living to maintain," Polk said. "I do have the faith that at some point things will change and things will get better, and things will be different."
As the conversation about higher wages heats up around the country, a handful of Memphis employers have increased pay.
Shelby County's fifth largest employer--Shelby County Schools--recently announced a plan to pay all full-time employees $15 an hour.
Choices Memphis Center for Reproductive Health made that same decision last year.
"With Choices upping up their pay, it was a blessing to me," Olivia Jackson said. "I am getting emotional about it, because like I said, I went from $0 to $13 to $15, and it's wonderful. These tears are not fake tears, they are tears of joy, because I was able to do a lot of stuff I was not able to do because of Choices."
As a single woman without children, Jackson makes nearly $8 more than the minimum wage.
Her company's board members made the decision in 2017 to raise entry level pay for their 20 full-time and 12 part-time employees to $15 an hour.
"You put your money where your values are," Choices Executive Director Rebecca Terrell said.
Terrell said a feasibility study showed it was possible to raise wages and keep their doors open for service.
"Minimum wage is a joke. Nobody can live a life in this country with the way the expenses are now on minimum wage," Terrell said.
But wages are just one piece of the poverty puzzle.
Delavega's report shows other issues like unreliable transportation and a rise in incarceration impact poverty rates.
According to the Poverty Report, records reflect a dramatic increase in African American incarceration rates from 1980 to 2016, while the proportion of incarcerated whites declined both in the U.S. and Shelby County.
"So often the criminal justice system traps people economically. Not only can they not get good jobs in the mainstream economy, but they often owe the criminal justice system large amounts of money for a single contact," attorney Josh Spikler said.
Spikler works with Just City, a group dedicated to creating a smaller, fairer, and more humane criminal justice system.
"[Engagement] is $450 in some instances. We pay that fee and then the next time they go to a job interview they can report no, they have never been convicted of a criminal offense," Spikler explained. "That helps their job prospects; it helps their housing prospects; it helps their educational prospects. When those things improve, the chances they go to the criminal justice system again decreases greatly."
City of Memphis has also stepped in to help.
Mayor Jim Strickland and his administration raised funds to clear the records of 140 non-violent offenders.
A spokesperson with the City of Memphis also pointed to programs started under the Strickland administration as a way of addressing the city's stagnant poverty rate.
- Work Local offers $9 an hour to homeless people for picking up litter around the city.
- Manhood University is a partnership with local churches to provide young men with employment.
- There's also a Down Payment Assistance Program city administration said has helped around 150 families become homeowners in the last 2 years.
- Plus, Memphis 3.0 is a program Strickland said is pushing to enhance land use, transportation, city systems, and neighborhoods to build prosperity.
"We have to grow this city. We have to grow in population and jobs so there's more opportunity out there. We've embarked on the first comprehensive plan in 40 years: the Memphis 3.0. Because if you look at it, Downtown, Midtown, East Memphis, they're all doing great. But we need to expand the momentum and growth we have north and south of the Poplar corridor. So that everyone, everyone's neighborhood can experience the momentum at we have," Strickland said.
Memphis City Council Members and Shelby County Commissioners are also looking for ways to increase the number of students in countywide Pre-Kindergarten classes. The hope is that early access to education will reduce poverty's impact on the most vulnerable.
All of those programs are designed to change the staggering statistics in the Poverty Report--numbers that reveal every time you see a black child in Shelby County, there is an almost 50 percent chance that child meets the federal standard of poor.
In Barbara Nesbitt's neighborhood, the poorest zip code in Shelby County, that percentage is even higher. According to U.S. Census data, more than 60 percent of families living in 38126 are below the poverty line.
"I wonder how they survive, but how they survive is they come over here. They tell us what they need. We get them what they need," Nesbitt said.
There are goodhearted Memphians stepping up to the plate to do whatever they can to make sure every child has the chance to live in the America that King dreamed about--an America with equality and equity for all.