Memphis Inequality: A Vicious Cycle 

It is axiomatic that, after one week of a new year, most people will have long since forsaken their chief resolutions and gone back to spooning up that extra bit of sugar for their coffee or blowing off that planned get-in-shape regimen as being too much to worry with.

click to enlarge jim.jpg

We can only hope that, with a new Memphis city government freshly sworn in, its members will be the exception and will hold steadfast to all the resolves they made in our name (or at least to get our vote) during the recent election. We certainly have a right to hope that our new mayor, former Councilman Jim Strickland, takes proper care of the litany of issues that he intoned so often during the mayoral race — public safety, blight, and accountability. But, after hearing him speak at the Cannon Center on New Year's Day upon his inauguration, we are even more hopeful regarding his fidelity to a new set of ideas he announced apropos the social welfare of his city-ful of constituents.

As was noted in the "Politics" column this week, one sentence of Strickland's was especially striking. It bears repeating here: "We are a city rife with inequality; it is our moral obligation, as children of God, to lift up the poorest among us."

Not only did Strickland not speak so succinctly of what may be our most pressing problem during the campaign; neither did any of his opponents. "Inequality." That is certainly the elephant in our room — and in our streets and workplaces. The new mayor reminded us that, on election night, he had promised to employ "new eyes to solve old problems."

The social and economic inequality of which he spoke on Inauguration Day is certainly the oldest of these problems — and the most difficult to resolve. Yet all of the other problems facing the city and its mayor are inextricably tied to that one.

As Strickland also said: "We have debt that must be paid, a pension that must be funded, and a tax base moving away." Clearly, the persistence of a large underclass of impoverished citizens excacerbates all of those conditions.

And there was this statement in the inauguration speech, an echo of similar ones made over and over during the campaign year, not only by Strickland, but by a variety of council candidates (for some of them the solitary plank in their public platforms): "We will focus on the goal of retaining and recruiting quality police officers and firefighters, knowing public safety is at the forefront of rebuilding our city."

That's all very well, but the several hundred police officers who left the city's service in recent years made it as clear as could be that the slashing of their benefits was their single most pressing reason for dissatisfaction. They haven't gone home to collect unemployment; in significant numbers they have found kinder niches in other departments elsewhere.

Inequality means a reduced tax base, which means a shrunken budget — which means a harder task to recruit first responders and more incentives for an uneasy middle class to decamp. And that, of course, means further reduction in the tax base.

It's what you call a vicious cycle, but we're glad that Mayor Strickland has taken note of it, and we wish him all the best in tackling these issues over the next four years.

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