Malcolm X summed up the cycle of poverty by saying: “When you live in a poor neighborhood, you are living in an area where you have poor schools. When you have poor schools, you have poor teachers. When you have poor teachers, you get a poor education. When you get a poor education, you can only work in a poor-paying job. And that poor-paying job enables you to live again in a poor neighborhood. So, it’s a very vicious cycle.”
The fact that Birmingham is only a short 50-some years post-segregation adds an additional layer to the poverty cycle here. The city is still making up for the economic opportunities African-Americans missed. But the tragic events that took place in 1963 also led to positive, transformative and lasting change.
Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is a timeless text of moral authority that still speaks to injustices around the world today. And the echoes of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing on Sept. 15, 1963 that killed four African-American girls, still resonates in the hearts and minds of those committed to human rights.
“The city is beginning to see a true renaissance for the first time in a generation.”
It’s taken quite some time to change the perception of Birmingham so businesses will come and help our economy to grow. For a period, the city languished; infrastructure crumbled, and a massive white flight led to a decrease in revenues. Since Birmingham was a staunchly blue island in a very red state, the city had very little home rule over any aspect of its governing.
Over the last few years, my administration has spent approximately $200 million on infrastructure projects throughout the city. Over the past 24 months, almost 2,000 new business licenses have been issued by the city, creating more than 3,000 jobs and a capital investment in excess of $3 billion. The city is beginning to see a true renaissance for the first time in a generation.
The additional tax and business license revenue generated means we can pump money into neighborhoods to improve simple things such as recreation centers, parks and streets.
Pollution follows poverty. In 2010, Birmingham’s poor air quality meant many businesses weren’t attracted to the city, so we focused on creating an atmosphere for technology jobs to flourish. We have been successful. We started by working with former President Obama to secure the TechHire designation for the city. TechHire is a bold, multi-sector initiative to empower Americans with the skills they need through universities, colleges and non-traditional approaches that can rapidly train workers for a well-paying job, often in just a few months. The University of Alabama at Birmingham and the city secured a $6.5 million grant to train over 925 people for technology jobs. Our first graduates are already in the workforce.
The key to fighting poverty in our city is providing opportunities like TechHire for job training so that residents can make a good living. Birmingham did not have those opportunities before my administration. Success breeds success, and we now have a chance to secure the Amazon headquarters in our city, which would bring an unprecedented 50,000 jobs to this area.
Prior to 1963, Birmingham had institutionalized racism and segregation. The city code mandated separate schools, and when the system was gutted post-segregation, the loss of students meant a loss of funding. Education is a primary means of breaking the poverty cycle. The unfortunate truth is that we have very little say in what happens at the Birmingham school board, but we provide consistent resources at a rate above area schools.
“Birmingham had to claw her way out of the vestiges of segregation, retrain the mindset of her people and prove to the world that she would not falter under the weight of the scars left behind.”
Now, the Birmingham City School system has little to no debt thanks to city funds. Every city determines how best to support their local schools in the absence of adequate state funding–some dedicate dollars from their general budget to assist with operating and programmatic costs, while others provide funds to assist with capital programs.
Over the years, Birmingham has done both and increased our millage tax to dedicate additional money to schools. We are improving and rebuilding, but it takes time. Similarly, public transportation is not funded at a state level. The city actively pursues every federal dollar that we can secure to improve our public transportation system.
In his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize address Martin Luther King Jr. stated, “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.”
Birmingham had to claw her way out of the vestiges of segregation, retrain the mindset of her people and prove to the world that she would not falter under the weight of the scars left behind. We finally have the resources to attack poverty.
Just as Birmingham broke the back of segregation, our goal is to break the back of poverty by providing jobs, quality education, access to public transportation and ultimately hope for the continued success of this great city.