Nashville health officials are trying to decide whether a steep drop in childhood poverty is something to celebrate. County-by-county data published Wednesday by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation shows a much smaller percentage of children in Davidson County are growing up poor.
The child poverty rate, seen as an indicator of broader wellbeing, is now 22 percent, down from 32 percent in just two years. There's some fear that gentrification could be a major factor — both by bringing in more affluent families and by pushing out low-income residents.
"I think we need to better understand if this reflects a good trend (less poverty) or something else," Metro Public Health director Bill Paul said in an email.
The Metro Schools program that provides food, clothing and other services to families in need does report regular departures of low-income students to outlying counties.
Alison McArthur is the coordinator for Community Achieves within MNPS. And often times, these days, her caseworkers have to work with parents to find a new apartment after the landlord decides to renovate and hike up the rent. She recalls a family of seven that needed assistance.
"My person worked and worked with that family — could not find an affordable place, and I think that family wound up in Cookeville," she says. "What we're seeing right now is a lot of families being pushed out of Davidson County."
McArthur figures gentrification may also play a role in the school district's stalled growth. Rather than adding a projected 1,500 students this year, the district lost 500 students.
Other counties in the region have not seen the same precipitous drop in child poverty, according to the 2018 data. But Nashville's poverty rate, while slightly better than the statewide average, is still considerably higher than any surrounding counties. A mere five percent of children in affluent Williamson County are growing up in poverty — the lowest figure in the state.
Knoxville and Chattanooga have improved, though not as much as Nashville. Memphis and Shelby County experienced a slight uptick in the most recent data with one of the highest child poverty rates in the state.