Many families in Memphis face dramatic social and economic barriers to living in safe and healthy communities. The American Community Survey (ACS) indicates poverty and unemployment remains high in Memphis relative to state and national estimates. Child poverty is extremely high in Memphis-nearly twice as high as the national average (2011 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates). The geographic dispersion of poverty by Memphis neighborhood is particularly striking. Census tracts with very high rates of families living below the poverty level are clustered around the current and former public housing sites. At the same time, there are very high-poverty areas in the northwestern and southern parts of Memphis, which are the areas where many MHA relocatees have moved with their HVCs—likely because there is a large supply of affordable housing and landlords willing to accept vouchers.
There is a large body of research on the negative effects of living in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty and disadvantage, especially for children. These negative consequences include: poor mental and physical health, high prevalence of risky sexual behavior, delinquency, and increased exposure to violence (Leventhal and Brooks-Gunn 2000, 2004; Sampson, Morenoff, and Gannon-Rowley 2002). Poor health, high homicide rates, and low birth weights also occur disproportionately in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty (Morenoff, Sampson, and Raudenbush 2001; Sampson, Earls, and Raudenbush 1997), as do social disorder and reduced collective efficacy (i.e. community resources and influence to change harmful conditions). In distressed public housing communities like those targeted for HOPE VI revitalization, those ills combine and residents often suffer some of poverty’s worst effects, whether drug addiction, death or maiming in drug wars, arrest or incarceration, or severe trauma from the stress of coping with constant violence and disorder (Popkin et al. 2000).
Recent work by the Urban Institute documented the extraordinary concentrations of gun and other violent crime in Chicago’s public housing prior to the citywide transformation effort; although crime has fallen citywide, violent crime remains a serious problem in these communities (Popkin et. al 2012b). Nationwide, for children and youth, growing up in communities of concentrated poverty becomes a lifelong disadvantage—they experience disproportionately high risk for developmental and cognitive delays, poor physical and mental health, and for adolescents, high odds of dropping out of school, engaging in risky sexual behavior, and becoming involved in delinquent and criminal activities (Getsinger and Popkin 2010; Leventhal and Brooks-Gunn 2004; Sharkey 2010).