Outside the view of your average citizen, a rather large group of children at East Nashville’s James A. Cayce Homes goes through each day struggling for a basic necessity of survival. They’re hungry, and their families have trouble putting food on their tables. Marsha Edwards, CEO of the Martha O’Bryan Center, the longtime community resource center for the public housing development, witnesses it firsthand. Every Monday, the nonprofit, partnering with Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee, hosts Kids Cafe, an outing where about 250 children and their families show up at the center to enjoy a free, warm meal.
“We see kids whose family is relying on that meal to stretch their food budget for the week,” Edwards said. “We see children that day, that night, who we don’t see the rest of the week. These are families whose mom is in our GED class or in our employment class, and the kids are not in our after-school programs. These are kids we see just when there is a need.”
The scene each Monday at the Martha O’Bryan Center underscores the gravity of poverty in Nashville. Mayor Karl Dean says his office is bringing a renewed emphasis to the issue after he created a new position last month to help coordinate an already existing initiative to fight poverty. Dean tapped veteran Tam Gordon to lead the effort. A former special assistant to Gov. Phil Bredesen, Gordon is expected to begin implementing Nashville’s Poverty Reduction Plan, a public-private report released a year ago that cites the ambitious goal of cutting the number of Nashvillians living below the poverty line — now 16 percent of Davidson County’s population — in half by 2020.
Poverty in Nashville seems to have a more dramatic effect on the young. Of Nashville children 5 years old or younger, 34 percent are in families whose income places them below the poverty line.
“The need for this sort of initiative has only gotten greater,” Dean said of the time that has passed since the report’s unveiling. “One of the things that has occurred, obviously, is the economic downturn has continued for deeper and longer than any one since the Depression. So you’ve actually seen poverty increase. That’s just a fact of the U.S. economy right now.
“It’s important for the mayor’s office to stay involved to put the emphasis that this is a priority for the city,” he said.
Gordon’s appointment follows a pattern for Dean, who has carved out other positions in his office to help monitor, among other things, progress in the areas of environmentalism and bicycle/pedestrian activity. There’s no secret to the approach: Use long, exhaustive documents as road maps for major policy issues, then hire people to try to ensure they don’t turn into stale manuscripts.
In these areas — biking, walking and environmentalism — the results have been mixed. The mayor’s office can points to advancements, but The City Paper in October revealed the absence of a systematic effort to begin addressing simple things such as replacing stormwater grates with openings parallel to the street, a danger to cyclists (there’s a recommendation in a report to do so). On Metro’s “green” front, The City Paper more recently revealed that the mayor’s director of environment and sustainability isn’t keeping a tally of the administration’s stated goal of carbon reduction.
“This issue is a priority, something that I care about a lot,” Dean said of the renewed focus on poverty.
The release of the 76-page, photo-filled poverty-reduction plan last year followed months of community meetings and symposiums on the topic. The report identified seven areas to address: child care, economic opportunity, food, health care, housing, neighborhood development and workforce development. Separate subcommittees produced dozens of recommendations for each topic.
Since the unveiling more than 12 months ago, subcommittees have grown and continued with more meetings to discuss the plan. The mayor has charged Metro Social Services with taking the lead, and Gordon — who will be paid $90,000 a year — is to assist in those efforts.
As he has done all along, the mayor stresses that the long-term solution to poverty must
result from private buy-in to work alongside the government.
“We’re at a stage where you’re going to continue to see the work done for how we look for a long-term solution, and that could be over a period of years,” Dean said. “But at the same time, we’re going to be pushing forward to implement things that are ready now.”
Gordon, a North Nashville native who covered politics for the Nashville Banner and today serves on several boards of philanthropic nonprofit organizations, said she understands her role.
“Basically, what I’m trying to do is help them set some priorities,” Gordon said, adding that she’s well aware of the 10-year plan to cut poverty in half. “That’s fine. I understand and respect that. I’m just trying to look at what we can do this year.”
She acknowledges that funding is trickier.
“We want to see what we’re going to do first,” Gordon said. “Then we’ll talk about how we’re going to fund something.”
In an interview with The City Paper, the first item Gordon mentioned is the need for basic dental care for the city’s poor. She cited a mobile health clinic that stopped by McGavock High School on a recent Saturday; 700 of the more than 1,000 people who showed up needed medical attention for their teeth. She said the administration plans to put addressing dentistry needs on the “front burner.”
Gordon also discussed a poverty-reduction plan initiative to develop something called “Bank on Nashville,” to increase access to affordable financial services among Nashville’s low-income citizens. The idea, she said, is to encourage more people to get banking and checking accounts by connecting banks with the poor. She said it should be fairly easy to begin, and that it’s the sort of program that won’t require capital to launch. Gordon also alluded to hunger, adding that the city needs to marshal its resources, identify those individuals lacking basic food necessities and reach them.
“Let’s just face it,” Gordon said. “We’re not going to wipe out poverty in 10 years. ... But we can fill some gaps, and we can take care of some immediate problems.”
Former Vice Mayor Howard Gentry, who chairs the Nashville Poverty Council, which coordinated the creation of the poverty reduction plan, called the hiring of Gordon “exciting.” He said there’s always been a representative from the mayor’s office involved with the council’s efforts but no advocate for implementation.
“There are some initiatives that are ready to go,” Gentry said, declining to identify them. “I see Tam as the person from the mayor’s office who’s going to carry those initiatives into implementation, into a stage where we’re actually providing the services for the people who need them.”
Moving forward, Gentry said the various nonprofit groups that assisted with the poverty reduction plan would be able to collaborate more with city government to advance the cause.
“We have never really — in the area of poverty — poured all the forces into one room and into one effort to make a mark,” he said. “So I believe just by virtue of all of these organizations working together, you can’t help but to at some point see a positive outcome.”