Poverty levels have decreased in Memphis but disparities remain, study shows

WATCH: Poverty levels decrease in Memphis

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Memphis 51 years ago, he was working with sanitation workers as they launched the next phase of the civil rights movement: The Poor People’s Campaign.

The National Civil Rights Museum and the University of Memphis published a study last year reviewing poverty in Memphis over the past 50 years.

Since then, the poverty levels have decreased in Memphis but the poverty rate for African-Americans is 2.5 times higher than that of whites.

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The Emmanuel Center is in the heart of the 38126, which is the poorest zip code in Memphis and one of the most poverty stricken communities in the city.

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For nearly 30 years, the center has been working to break the generational cycle of poverty, starting with the community’s youngest members.

“Motivate kids by showing them the benefit of what they could have and what they could become if they became a better student,” said Father Colenzo Hubberd, executive director at the Emmanuel Center.

According to a report by Dr. Elena Delevaga from the University of Memphis, the poverty rate in Memphis has dropped from 19 percent to 17.1 percent.

However, Delevaga’s research shows there are still racial disparities between blacks and whites:

  • Whites have a poverty rate of 8.1%, while African Americans have a poverty rate of 24.5%
  • Childhood poverty rate (under age 18) in Memphis is the second-highest in the United States
  • The poverty rate for African American children (38.5%) is more than four times that of white children (8.4%)

“The opportunities are there but in many cases people don’t have the capability or they haven’t prepared themselves to take advantage of them,” said Hubbert. “For those of us who work in trenches we have to do an even better job of working through that.”

The Emmanuel Center works with 150-175 students from 20 different Shelby County schools four times a week after school.

The center also hires some of their high school students as staff members, like 11th grader Charquendelyn Johnson, who works with 3rd graders and helps them with their reading.

She told FOX13 the Emmanuel Center has changed her life dramatically.

“Helping move out of dark place and knowing that there are people out there who actually care to get an opportunity to get a job,” she said.

During the summer, the Emmanuel Center is open five days a week helping students keep up with their reading levels.