Why Black Unemployment in Memphis, Tennessee Will Likely Remain High
Having one of the highest crime rates in the country doesn't help
Memphis is one of the “blackest” cities in America. According to the 2010 census, it ranks number six on the list of large municipalities with a significant African American presence. All told, the city is home to nearly 415,000 people of color who constitute 64% of the total Memphis population.
African Americans retain a strong presence in the South. Cities such as New Orleans, Birmingham and Jackson, Mississippi all have black communities that comprise over 60% of their overall populations.
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For the most part, those cities suffer more acutely from unemployment than do nearby municipalities, and have higher jobless rates than state and national averages. This is also the situation in Memphis. As of this past January, unemployment there stood at 9.4%. The national rate, meanwhile, was 8.3% and Tennessee’s was marginally better at 8.2%.
Other cities in the state were also in better shape, job-wise. The capital, Nashville, handily beat the overall US and state level by recording 7.2% in January. Knoxville trumped this by coming in at 6.7%.
Memphis isn’t the worst city in terms of Tennessee joblessness (that “honor” belongs to Morristown, with 10.7%), but it’s near the bottom of the ranks. At first glance, this is hard to understand. The city is well-situated to have a thriving economy, as it’s on the Mississippi River and has the second-busiest cargo port on that busy waterway. Its big airport is number two in the world in terms of cargo operations by volume, and serves as not only the main hub for FedEx Express but also brings in plenty of business from passenger flights.
Also, Memphis has been celebrated for the culture it’s produced over many decades. Elvis Presley, for one, is a famous native son who first recorded and performed in the city. Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, and B.B. King also honed their skills by performing for Memphis crowds in the early days of their careers. To this day, the city is still considered one of the most fertile ones in America for music.
But a welcoming atmosphere for working artists and logisticians doesn’t necessarily mean jobs for the broader population. One major reason for Memphis’s relatively high joblessness could be crime. Memphis seems to attract a lot of the wrong element – it’s a regular resident in top ten listings for most violent cities in America and has one of the highest crime rates in the country.
That might be due to the city’s grinding, chronic poverty – nearly 20% of its residents eked out a life below the poverty line in 2010.
Although crime has gone down in the city over time, its still-high level scares potential investors away. This is one key reason why the city’s jobs are concentrated in certain sectors. Although Memphis has developed more of a service economy over time, it is still heavily dependent on logistics for jobs.
If the crime rate continues to be reduced (a challenge given recent cutbacks to local law enforcement), the city stands more of a chance of attracting new employers. This can create jobs and broaden the economic base, both of which would be very welcome there.