How Collaboration Could Foster Economic Growth in Nashville

January 24, 2020 // Author: Larkin Raynor

Nashville is currently experiencing an historically low unemployment rate at 2.4%.[1] Even still, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 17.1% of the city’s population lived below the Federal Poverty Level in 2018 [2] and while Nashville has experienced tremendous population growth over the last decade, high rent prices are forcing those with lower incomes to relocate elsewhere. Children are rarely out-earning their parents anymore and those who grow up in Davidson County are likely to make 7.8% less per year than their counterparts in other counties.[3] The Community Working Together event hosted by West End Community Church on October 28th convened representatives from the nonprofit, business, academic, and government sectors to discuss potential solutions to the issues low-income Nashvillians face.

The event’s underlying theme was the need for collaboration across each of these sectors. According to Panelist Brian Hassett, President and CEO of United Way Nashville, local businesses are interested in partnering with nonprofit organizations, but they aren’t sure where they fit yet. By fostering communication between these sectors, Hassett says Nashville businesses can help provide nonprofits with the resources they desperately need.

36.6% of Nashville residents live below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level.[4] Although many of these people struggle to afford basic necessities, few of them meet the eligibility requirements for government assistance. Panelist Danielle Barnes, Commissioner of the Department of Human Services said that, while the state cannot provide assistance to those who aren’t eligible, it is interested in forming creative partnerships between government agencies and nonprofit organizations. This will enable the state to refer nearly eligible applicants to community groups who may be able to help meet their needs. This ensures that those who need help will know where to look, and those whose mission is to provide help will be able to reach as many people as possible.

Many colleges and universities call Nashville home. Dr. Doug Perkins, a professor at Vanderbilt University, proposed the establishment of an interuniversity, interdisciplinary consortium where representatives would look at issues from a holistic standpoint, accounting for physical, environmental, infrastructural, and other barriers keeping Nashvillians from economic growth. According to Dr. Perkins, the government’s cooperation with academics studying these issues is an integral part of their ability to affect change, but local governments aren’t always so willing to share their data. “Local governments may sometimes worry that an academic like myself is asking for data that might make them look bad. That’s not what we’re really after,” said Dr. Perkins, who believes that access to data and proper analysis can help the government identify and solve systemic issues.

Representatives from each sector emphasized the important role that data could potentially play in Nashville’s economic mobility efforts. Dr. Garrett Harper, a researcher from Metro Social Services, said the city and nonprofits could use data in the same way private companies do: to find patterns and predict outcomes. For the nonprofit sector, this means locating the people who need help the most instead of letting them fall through the cracks. Other panelists noted that data could be used to identify those who may be eligible for government assistance but have not applied. Such data are especially useful to nonprofits like TJC, since we have encountered many people in our work who qualify for programs like TennCare, CoverKids, SNAP and WIC who are not enrolled. These programs are proven to help lift families out of poverty.

The panel agreed that the upcoming 2020 United States Census will be instrumental in kick starting data collection. In keeping with the theme of collaboration, the panelists discussed the role nonprofits will play in helping their clients understand why Census participation is so important. First, the Census helps the state understand economic situations on an individualized level, rather than just a localized one—it will help the state identify what types of help low-income and underrepresented Nashvillians need. Additionally, Census data will help nonprofits themselves better understand how to serve their clients. The 2020 Census could be the state’s chance to develop individualized responses to data as well as the opportunity it needs to foster collaboration with the nonprofit sector.

TJC realizes the importance of collaboration in our work and welcomes the opportunity to partner with government, nonprofits and businesses alike to advance policies that best serve the needs of all Tennesseans and promote economic growth.

Larkin Raynor is a Children’s Health Intern at the Tennessee Justice Center.