How Shelby County is Blowing its Future Today
The Shelby County Commission’s 8-3 vote on June 6th to defund the county’s Office of Early Childhood and Youth (OECY) is socially regressive, economically myopic, morally repugnant, and fiscally pointless. This may read like a fine kick-off to a good ole rant, but instead it’s the tragic outline of how the Commission’s decision will affect our community’s efforts to fight infant mortality, protect children from violence and abuse, reverse the upward trend of teen pregnancy, and provide quality early childhood care and education—all initiatives for which OECY has tirelessly pursued and won external funding to implement locally.
Shelby County, like Tennessee, and like much of the country, is in thrall to socially regressive policies that are cutting kids from the safety, health, educational, and environmental assets and protections needed to grow a 21st century workforce. In 2007 (year of most recent data), 23% of 18 to 24 year-olds in Memphis were not in school, not working, and only had a high school degree or GED. Cutting OECY, which has undertaken systemic efforts to foster the positive development of the 18 to 24 year-olds of tomorrow, will confound our local governments’ current attempts to improve economic development as it simultaneously grapples with foreclosures, blight, and homelessness. The poverty rate for all ages in Shelby County is a whopping 21%. Food and housing insecurity have plagued 26% and 50% of local households, respectively.
Without enough to eat and homes at risk, it should be little wonder that stress of daily life takes a toll. Such “stressors” are proven factors in premature birth and infant death. Yet our commission responds by cutting the office that just last month received a $4 million contract from the state to reduce teen pregnancy and improve birth outcomes.
Poverty, lack of opportunity, and extreme stress also foment violence by and against youth, who in turn enter the adult correctional system by way of city and suburban neighborhoods alike. The OECY had been responding to epidemic violence as one of the eight federally funded Defending Childhood Initiatives in the country, working at the local level to reduce children’s exposure to violence and abuse and to mitigate the damage of abuse when it does occur.
Frankly, I can’t choose only one single example to call out as morally repugnant. Eight commissioners, among them Wyatt Bunker leading the charge, chose via loophole to forego their own rules of order, which state “A Child Impact Statement shall be submitted to the County Commission with all Items presented for approval that deal with education, health, land use, and any other issue effecting juvenile justice that could reasonably impact children in any substantial way.”
Not coincidentally, the use of child impact statements is also administered by the OECY. Since the fall of 2009, county employees have drafted 160 child impact statements using the OECY’s web application, SHELBY Child Impact Assessment, to inform commissioners of the potential effects proposed actions held for children, youth, and families throughout the county. And, also of no coincidence, SHELBY is where I found my data.
Absent the requisite impact statement, the commission proceeded without evidence. And eschewing any informed consideration whatsoever, Commissioner Bunker’s persistent efforts deleted the minor budget of an already under-resourced office that had recently accepted the loss of two staff positions and that—despite the odds—grew in just a few short years from a county-funded operation to an almost entirely self-funded enterprise.
The Shelby County Commission’s vote to dismantle the Office of Early Childhood and Youth delivers no meaningful financial gain while claiming tragic losses for children, families, and our collective prosperity. Shelby County has lost vision, and our community has lost voice, if a small group of ill-informed individuals can severely damage what so many in our community hold unflinchingly dear: our children, our future.