A child rides his bike on the sidewalk of a low-income neighborhood.
A child rides his bike through his neighborhood of affordable rental homes. Thirty-five-year-olds who grew up in this part of Whitehaven tend to make about $20,000 per year. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

In Shelby County, neighborhoods are largely segregated by both race and income, thanks in large part to decades of intentionally racist housing policy and white flight. 

And while housing segregation is nothing new, it continues to harm low-income, Black children, according to experts. That’s because the neighborhoods themselves increase the children’s chances of suffering from poor health or dying at younger ages.

New research from the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality shows census tracts throughout South Memphis, Whitehaven and Frayser — the places where most low-income housing gets built — rank in the 90th to 99th percentiles for people with asthma and diabetes.

Living in low-income neighborhoods is also associated with a shorter life. 

In the part of South Memphis that’s seen the most new affordable housing in recent years, the life expectancy rate is just shy of 72.  In Germantown, Collierville or Lakeland, where low-income housing isn’t being built, the life expectancy rates range from 75 to 85. 

And, when low-income families move from neighborhoods with a lot of poverty into neighborhoods with almost none, the mental and physical health of women and female children dramatically improves, according to the Moving to Opportunity study, a 1990s experiment conducted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Women experienced less obesity, diabetes, anxiety and depression. Their daughters faced fewer panic attacks, psychological distress and multiple types of mood disorders.

“The women and their female children (who moved) experienced less psychological distress and major depression,” the study says. 

An adult who had low-income parents and was raised in Germantown is also likely to earn more than double the income of someone raised in South Memphis. For this research, Chetty analyzed federal income tax data for people who were 35 years old during the mid-2010s. Because of this, it captures the conditions of neighborhoods during the 1980s and 1990s, when the 35-year-olds were growing up. However, at least from a racial segregation perspective, neither South Memphis nor Germantown has changed much in the last 40 years

While particularly pronounced in these two parts of town, similar disparities exist throughout the county:

  • Thirty-five-year-olds who grew up with low-income parents in the East Memphis tract just west of I-240 tend to have a household income of $42,000
  • For those who grew up in the Whitehaven tract just west of Memphis International Airport, the average is about $21,000
  • People who grew up in eastern Binghampton, home to the affordable Eastern Heights apartments, tend to have household incomes around $18,000

Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com

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