In 1999, the Memphis zip code ranked as the third poorest in the country. Home to the Cleaborn and Foote housing projects, unemployment sat above 70 percent. Almost 50 percent of the community lacked a high school degree. Drugs and gangs plagued the community, and most residents had dim prospects of rising out of persistent poverty.
In this environment, Steve Nash founded Advance Memphis in 1999. Recognizing the need for a friendly face and a chance at self-sufficiency, Nash started driving around Memphis’s worst communities trying to personally connect with residents and connect them to work opportunities. Advance Memphis has since expanded its ministry significantly, currently served by nine full-time staff members and numerous volunteers and business partners from the community. Despite its growth, the organization has maintained its individual focus and commitment to teaching Memphis residents the financial and personal rewards of employment.
Students start with the Jobs for Life program, a six-week soft skills job training class. Local business professionals teach responsibility, communication, literacy, computer skills, interviewing techniques, and resume construction and tutor participants for the GED exam. During the Jobs for Life program, Advance Memphis also teaches a financial freedom class, giving students the skills they need to make responsible financial decisions after they graduate. Graduates have the opportunity to open Individual Development Accounts, which encourage them to save and build an asset base.
Advance Memphis does not end the relationship with its clients after graduation but offers a staffing service, jobs at the organization, and off-site work with partner organizations. So far in 2011 alone, 60 graduates from the Advance Memphis program have found jobs, 53 people have graduated from the Jobs for Life program, and three students have earned GEDs.
Nash credits the success of Advance Memphis to the organization’s emphasis on work and understanding the necessity of employment in achieving self-sufficiency: “This is the key to seeing a life change. When you have a high-profile drug dealer working and holding a job for the first time in his life, that is a positive witness for change.”
Advance Memphis is helping individuals in Tennessee escape a generational cycle of poverty by restoring opportunities for work, not merely increasing handouts. Likewise, effective anti-poverty outreach and policy should begin with a correct understanding of the causes of poverty, which are rooted more in social and relational breakdown than mere material need.
As Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield write in a recent paper, policymakers should acknowledge the actual living conditions of the poor and the root causes of poverty in order to more effectively allocate resources to those most in need.
Dorothy Williams currently is a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/internships-young-leaders/the-heritage-foundation-internship-program