Politics

Can You Fight Poverty by Paying Kids to Go to School?

Benjamin Banneker Elementary School fourth-graders Michael Jefferson, left, Byron Cooper and Travis Housey were photographed studying science in December 2009 (Rusty Costanza/The Times-Picayune/AP)
Benjamin Banneker Elementary School fourth-graders Michael Jefferson, left, Byron Cooper and Travis Housey were photographed studying science in December 2009 (Rusty Costanza/The Times-Picayune/AP)

 

MEMPHIS (Politico) — On one side of South Lauderdale Ave. sits the Foote Homes, among the last of the old federal housing projects that once proliferated in South Memphis, a low-slung, dun-bricked complex marked by stuffed animal memorials to dead teenagers, a place where two grown women recently pummeled each other silly while neighbors stood by laughing, smartphone cameras rolling for YouTube posterity.

On the other side of Lauderdale, not 150 feet away, sits the shiny, borderline-surreal Cleaborn Pointe at Heritage Landing, a manicured subdivision of semi-attached townhouses with 10-foot ceilings and white-railed front porches that seem to have been airlifted by aliens from a planet called Suburbia.

But behind those reassuring facades persist many of the same underlying problems found at the housing project across the street: single-mother households, substandard schools, lousy off-the-books jobs, a near-universal dependence on government support. Cleaborn looks a world apart, but in fact many of its residents are drawn from other projects around Memphis that have been demolished over the years under a massive federally subsidized effort to replace the city’s crumbling housing stock that poured as much as a quarter-billion dollars into Memphis over the past decade—without conquering the city’s endemic poverty.

“I had my first baby when I was 14 years old. You know, that’s kind of the whole story right there,” says Tamica Gordon-Cole, 35, sitting in her gleaming new kitchen table at Cleaborn, speaking above the clamor of the small army of kids who live with her in the four-bedroom rental.

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