Why Memphis’ economy struggles to improve, and what we can do to change that

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Memphis is a city on a mission for greatness.

It’s a city on the edge, a city divided. But it’s ours, and this is our chance for a better tomorrow.

It’s time to heal old wounds, and create new stories of success, by educating our children and by making sure there are enough jobs and everyone feels safe in their own home.

In this chapter of Memphis: On a Mission, WREG’s Richard Ransom reports the city’s economic obstacles go deeper than a lack of education or training, and that while Memphis’ problems aren’t necessarily unique, the unwillingness to confront them is.

People used to say Memphis grows slow and steady. No highs, but no lows either.

Then the Great Recession hit, and it seems every time we try to get back up, we get knocked down again.

Our eight-county region still has almost 36,000 fewer jobs than it did seven years ago. While other cities started seeing lots of job growth last year, we're still losing more jobs than we're gaining.

The labor department says among all metro areas with a million or more people, Memphis’ unemployment rate of 8.7 percent last month was the second worst in the country. Only Detroit is worse.

We found three reasons neighboring cities like Birmingham, Nashville, and New Orleans got their economies moving faster: first, other metro areas compete more as regions than with each other. Second, they’re aggressively attacking poverty. Third, they’re making sure they have the workers companies want to hire.

Why does the region perform so poorly? It's harder to do when you have so many state borders, which make the core city of Memphis an easy target to poach jobs. A study released last month concluded Memphis is one of the worst metro areas for 'job piracy.'

Instead of competing with nearby cities and counties, successful regions see and market themselves as such. This helps the whole region grow, instead of jobs just shifting from city to city in the same area. Some metro areas have even signed anti-piracy agreements prohibiting the solicitation of businesses located within the same metro area.

County Mayor Mark Luttrell says the EDGE program is a good start toward a more regional culture, and mentioned expanding that thinking in his second term.

“It's also vitally important we take full advantage of every opportunity we have to sit down and start thinking collectively as one,” he said.

But doing that also requires addressing issue number two: the poverty problem. Memphis has always struggled with it, but now our poverty rate is the worst in America.

Education also plays a part. There’s a need for the kind of training that provides a career path starting in high school. To provide this, there are new agreements between Shelby County Schools and virtually every two-year college in the region.

A big positive: Memphis has a larger young workforce than most cities. The latest census numbers show the Memphis metro actually attracted more adults with college degrees than Atlanta.

Optimists see that as a sign our economy is slowly making the changes it needs to.

“The one phrase I remember hearing over most of my career is that Memphis has so much potential,” Dexter Muller with the Memphis Chamber of Commerce said. “And I think what we're seeing today is we're at the point where we can really realize that potential."


  • Freedomwasawesome

    Nothing. It’s a lost cause

    The city has to offer tax breaks to keep jobs but desperately need the revenue. So the city continues to sink financially. Crime and education are so bad no one wants to live here.

  • Freedomwasawesome

    Oh and not to mention it would take strong leadership. But that will never happen because the majority which are the problem will never vote for someone that would be willing to take on the real issues.

  • Don

    Why Memphis’ economy struggles to improve, and what we can do to change that.
    There has been no leadership in Memphis since before Herenton and Wharton. and there won’t be leadership until the taxpaying citizens start going to the polls on election day and vote in a strong leadership. I hate to say it but Wharton is worse that Herenton.

  • gypsy lee

    we need the govenor to appoint a new mayor and city council , and reinstate the police and firemens beneficts, and set up a special force on gang violence

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