Nashville’s Prosperity Rests on Backs of Unhoused, Over-Jailed, and Undereducated

In recent years, Nashville has been at the top of many lists: friendliest, best music life, growing food scene, and one of the best places to live and work. Yes, from the looks of it, Nashville is the place to be, the It City (another list); the kind of place big cities want to emulate and small towns want to become. Thanks to these lists Nashville’s welcome mat is worn to shreds from the 100 relocations per day.

But a stroll out to the margins and one is smacked with the reality of people and places in the shadows that fail to make it the glossy pages.

In early April, Metro Social Services released its annual Community Needs Evaluation to show people a city they might never see otherwise. The 200-page report is a shocking revelation of the underbelly of the Nashville we see on TV and in magazines. If a city is only as good as it’s weakest population, Nashville has serious work to do.

Nashville, the Beautiful

File_000Entering the core of Nashville, one can’t help but take in the breathtaking skyline with the Batman Building at its peak surrounded by dozens of cranes signifying growth, hope. But below the cranes in the area immediately surrounding the core, the flags of poverty are impossible to avoid.

We know poverty does not discriminate, but people of color are suffering disproportionately and the city has been successful concealing these exemptions from prosperity.

The greatest barriers to Nashville’s promised land for too many of its residents are housing, mass incarceration, and failure to an excellent education to every child.

Housing Crisis

Nashville is the sixth-fastest gentrifying city in the nation and 12.9% of its families live in poverty, which is higher than both state and national averages. As a result, the city suffers under the weight of an affordable housing crisis (better known as a “shortage”) forcing families to pay higher rents or experience varying degrees of homelessness.

In the Grassroots Community Survey provided in the Metro Social Services report, nearly 60% of respondents believe the greatest gap between services offered and services needed was housing. This result is not surprising when the median gross rent is $924 attached to an ever-decreasing supply and burgeoning demand. Meanwhile, the vast majority of renters are people of color who also tend to earn significantly less.

The family that spends 30% or more of its income in housing expenses is cost burdened which includes nearly 45,000 households earning under $35,000. Not to mention approximately 25,000 of those families spend 50% or more on housing expenses. These families become nomadic, moving often in search of cheaper rent, sacrificing their children’s educational attainment, safety, and proximity to social services.


File_000 (2)We’ve become comfortable with using “school-to-prison pipeline” to label our society’s fascination with throwing the book at black men and women for the smallest infractions. At the Metro Social Services report release, public defender Dawn Deaner aptly called it the “birth to prison” pipeline. It certainly looks that way. This culture of incarceration is not unique to Nashville but in no way is the “it city” exempt.

In Tennessee, 43% of the felony population is Black, a group that makes up 16% of the state’s population. Though unable to find actual data on Nashville’s incarceration stats, all one has to do is look to local media to get an idea of who is being locked up at an alarming rate.

Part of the problem of mass incarceration is that it negatively impacts other areas such as family strength, employment, earning potential, healthy communities, and children’s educational attainment.


img_0993Yes, education is the civil rights issue of our time, but there’s no time to wait for everyone to agree to disagree. While teachers fight for respect, unions strike for salaries, ed reformers battle for validation, and parent’s scrap to be heard, children’s educational possibilities are circling the drain.

In 2016, only 11 percent of Nashville’s students were college-ready and only 34 percent of 3rd graders could read at grade level. At an event announcing the launch of a new literacy initiative in March, Nashville’s Mayor Megan Barry said, “Reading at grade level is a major indicator for a child’s academic success, and a child’s academic success is a strong indicator for the future of Nashville.”

Unfortunately, literacy is not the worst of the issues within Nashville’s schools. Around the country, schools are plagued by the dysfunction of the communities around them. Education is the lone institution where every societal ill gathers under one roof, turning schools into social service centers while trying to be high-achieving places of learning.

Children take to school the situations in which they live. Metro Schools’ poverty rate is more than 70 percent and we’ve established a few of the issues within our disenfranchised populations. In addition to the lack of affordable housing and mass incarceration, our schools must also work with high student mobility, food insecurity, mental and physical illnesses, acculturating new Americans, and abused children—just to list a few.

The Great Paradox

File_000 (1)Is it possible for Nashville to be one of the greatest cities in the United States when its marginalized citizens are not only becoming more vulnerable, but increasing in number? Our city is experiencing the largest apartment construction in America while our homelessness population spiked by 10 percent in 2016 – the 6th largest increase in the nation.

We have nationally ranked high performing magnet schools and schools where 85% of children struggle to read at grade level. The city is a virtual revolving door, welcoming new thousands of new residents per month while rolling out the undesirables to jails and other counties.

Don’t misunderstand me, these issues are not being completely ignored.  For instance, the Barnes Housing Fund and literacy initiative created by Mayor Barry are valiant efforts to mitigate affordable housing and reading deficiencies. Schools are working more intentionally with discipline in an effort to dismantle to the school-to-prison pipeline and programs can be found around the county to help with recidivism and inmate education. Finally, Metro Schools’ openness to offering non-traditional options (charters, alternative graduation and curriculum programs) has been good for students.

Something’s Amiss

Urgency. My frustration and impatience are at a tipping point because of my daily interaction with the other side of Nashville where many of my loved ones reside. The baby whose brilliance is scheduled to be extinguished by a list of odds experts are sure he can’t surmount. A close family member who fell on hard times and cannot find housing. The cousin who has spent his entire adult life caught up in the web of the criminal justice system creating a nearly impossible situation for his children and parents.

I wish I had the salve to quickly heal the ails of the marginalized and march them toward the middle. I wish Nashville’s greatness was felt by all of its citizens. I wish decisions were fueled by the same urgency and compassion when considering the fate of family member. I wish every school offered a nationally ranked education. I wish…


7 thoughts on “Nashville’s Prosperity Rests on Backs of Unhoused, Over-Jailed, and Undereducated

  1. People “of color” (primarily black), commit 52 percent of the violent crimes in America but are only 13 percent of the population!
    That’s the reason why there’s more blacks in prison.
    I also love the way you lop in “people of color” are more prone to be in prison. Indians and many Asians are are dark as blacks, but I don’t recall a lot of them being in prison.
    Fatherless homes and blaming white folks are more of a cause than some sort of drummed up fake racism you love to tout!
    A black Pastor named Jesse Lee Peterson tells it like it is.
    Throw down your race baiting pen and get a clue


    1. Prayerfully, you are not a teacher, police officer, caregiver, or someone who must work with the public (and Black people are part of the public). Look in the mirror and while reading aloud the comments you wrote here. Peace.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lets try not to lump together and categorize people. An individual has a 98% chance of not living in poverty if they do these 3 things. 1. Graduate high school. 2. Wait for marriage to have children. 3. Have a job. Individuals of all races can make these decisions and do make these decisions and thus do not live in poverty. We need more Biblical training and wisdom that comes from the Word of God. Many relatives have been in prison and not a one didn’t deserve the time. Until individuals being making better decisions, we cannot put our communities at risk with these people on the streets. Babies are being killed by stray bullets. Lets get some sense and police ourselves and have standards for our brothers and sisters. I hate to say it but that’s what white folks do for the most part. Which is why they don’t have these problems in mass numbers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your response. I, too, believe in personal accountability, but I’m also intimately acquainted with systemic biases and the curse of generational poverty. The three things you’ve listed as a foundation for a successful life assumes all things are equal and many are painfully aware that this is just not so.


    2. Pretty passionate words. However they are very misinformed. Quite interesting how we tend to forget that there has always been an entire system that has supported whites in this country and assisted them accumulating wealth i.e. government land grants and subsidies, redlining and segregation, welfare and food stamps (which black people were not allowed to participate in even though they had to pay taxes) etc. Home ownership is only one major area. Also legally barring blacks and other minorities from entire industries so that whites would not have to compete with them for employment was literally the law of the land. Learn your history and you will learn that we have never lived in a meritocracy where people just rise by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps…and if anyone has been even close to doing this, it is communities of color due to the fact that they have statistically had the least amount of government assistance. For your reading (dis)pleasure:

      White America’s Greatest Delusion: “They Do Not Know It and They Do Not Want to Know It”

      A ‘Forgotten History’ Of How The U.S. Government Segregated America

      Liked by 1 person

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