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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis

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What poverty looks like in Memphis, by the numbers

Betty Rogers pulls a cart of food to take home from the food pantry at the Greater Harvest Church of God in Christ in 2020. Rogers was the primary provider for a family of eight, but couldn’t work because of health issues so she used the pantry as support. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.
Betty Rogers pulls a cart of food to take home from the food pantry at the Greater Harvest Church of God in Christ in 2020. Rogers was the primary provider for a family of eight, but couldn’t work because of health issues so she used the pantry as support. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

This story is a collaboration between the Institute and Jacob Steimer at MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit Memphis newsroom focused on poverty, power and public policy — issues about which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. cared deeply.

Poverty in Memphis and the U.S. has barely changed in the past decade. 

And ahead of our May 30 event with “Poverty, by America” author Matt Desmond, co-hosted by the Institute for Public Service Reporting and MLK50: Justice through Journalism, we wanted to give you a bird’s-eye view of poverty in Memphis. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the share of people living in poverty in Memphis and the U.S. only decreased two percentage points from 2012 through 2021. And the poverty rate in Memphis remains nearly double the national rate.

The U.S. Census Bureau measures poverty based on a 60-year-old calculation created by Mollie Orshansky, a staff economist at the Social Security Administration. She calculated the average price of food a family needs in a month and multiplied that number by three, assuming a family’s necessities would be covered by the rest of their income. That number has been adjusted for inflation every year since then and does not change based on where people live in the U.S. Here’s how the bureau defines poverty based on the latest data available:

Number of people in householdPoverty annual income
1$14,891
2$18,932
3$23,284
4$29,960
5$35,495
Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Below are some high-level numbers about poverty in Memphis and the U.S. since 2012.

If someone makes less than half of the official poverty threshold, researchers refer to them as experiencing “deep poverty.” The share of people in Memphis and the U.S. living in deep poverty has similarly barely moved in the last 10 years, according to the bureau.

But none of this means that families with incomes above the bureau’s definition of poverty are able to meet their basic needs. 

With skyrocketing housing and medical costs and stagnating wages across the nation, food costs could never give a full picture of the lived experiences of people struggling to make ends meet. And the income it takes to meet a family’s basic needs, known as a living wage, varies widely depending on where you live. 

To help Americans understand those minimum incomes across the country, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a living wage calculator that includes costs for food, childcare, health care, housing, transportation, like clothing, personal care items, taxes, and internet — but not any sort of savings or retirement.

Below is the gap between the bureau’s poverty rate and MIT’s living wage calculator in Memphis.


Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com

Jacob Steimer
Contributing Author

Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com

Laura Kebede-Twumasi is coordinator of The Institute’s Civil Wrongs project exploring racial injustice in Memphis and the Mid-South. She is a corps member of Report for America and covered education in Memphis for several years for Chalkbeat Tennessee.

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