A person in a purple coat and clear face shield pushes a cart containing food through a building.
Betty Rogers pulls a cart of food to take home from the food pantry at the Greater Harvest Church of God in Christ in 2020. Rogers was the primary provider for a family of eight, but couldn’t work because of health issues so she used the pantry as support. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

Poverty in Memphis and the U.S. has barely changed in the past decade. 

And ahead of our May 30 event with “Poverty, by America” author Matt Desmond, co-hosted by the Institute for Public Service Reporting and MLK50: Justice through Journalism, we wanted to give you a bird’s-eye view of poverty in Memphis. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the share of people living in poverty in Memphis and the U.S. only decreased two percentage points from 2012 through 2021. And the poverty rate in Memphis remains nearly double the national rate.

The U.S. Census Bureau measures poverty based on a 60-year-old calculation created by Mollie Orshansky, a staff economist at the Social Security Administration. She calculated the average price of food a family needs in a month and multiplied that number by three, assuming a family’s necessities would be covered by the rest of their income. That number has been adjusted for inflation every year since then and does not change based on where people live in the U.S. Here’s how the bureau defines poverty based on the latest data available:

Number of people in householdPoverty annual income

Below are some high-level numbers about poverty in Memphis and the U.S. since 2012.

If someone makes less than half of the official poverty threshold, researchers refer to them as experiencing “deep poverty.” The share of people in Memphis and the U.S. living in deep poverty has similarly barely moved in the last 10 years, according to the bureau.

But none of this means that families with incomes above the bureau’s definition of poverty are able to meet their basic needs. 

With skyrocketing housing and medical costs and stagnating wages across the nation, food costs could never give a full picture of the lived experiences of people struggling to make ends meet. And the income it takes to meet a family’s basic needs, known as a living wage, varies widely depending on where you live. 

To help Americans understand those minimum incomes across the country, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a living wage calculator that includes costs for food, childcare, health care, housing, transportation, like clothing, personal care items, taxes, and internet — but not any sort of savings or retirement.

Below is the gap between the bureau’s poverty rate and MIT’s living wage calculator in Memphis. 

Children in poverty

Shelby County is in the top 10 for child poverty in Tennessee, according to a recent article by Tennessee Lookout.  

Counties with high child poverty also rank highest for low birth-weight babies, child care cost burdens and food insecurity. 

Laura Faith Kebede is coordinator of The Institute for Public Service Reporting Civil Wrongs project exploring racial injustice in Memphis and the Mid-South. She is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and covered education in Memphis for several years for Chalkbeat Tennessee.

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

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.

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