An Interview with Dr. Ken Chilton

Although we are known as “The Best Town Ever”, many folks in our city are not reaping the same benefits as their peers. Communities in the urban core and other low-income areas are remaining at the same income levels as housing and other costs of living continue to rise, literally putting them out of house and home. Chattanoogans must answer this call to action and take a stand for those at a disadvantage in their community.

This is precisely why CALEB, Chattanoogan in Action for Love, Equality, and Benevolence has organized the Rising River Summit, a daylong educational event focused on Chattanooga’s economic landscape.

We reached out to keynote speaker Dr. Ken Chilton, former head of the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies and current assistant professor at Tennessee State University to get a better picture of what Chattanooga is up against.

COA: How do you describe income inequality in Chattanooga?

Chilton: Pervasive. Institutionalized. Encouraged.

COA: Is the direction the Chattanooga economy is heading like to address or exacerbate the situation?

Chilton: This is a tough question to answer because inequality is more than just money and wealth. It includes opportunity structures and networks. Plus, predicting the future is always a crap shoot. Chattanooga is a barometer to measure the success of contemporary urban development in delivering inclusive benefits. Think about it. Chattanooga has the best of all worlds. VW and automotive suppliers are providing opportunities in modern manufacturing. The Gig City is bursting with technology endeavors and venture capitalists. The tourism industry generates over $1 billion in economic activity. The philanthropic ecosystem has combined assets of over $600 million and is highly engaged in the local community. New buildings are sprouting up in and around downtown.

Yet, 35% of children under the age of 18 live in poverty. Thirty-three percent of African Americans live in poverty. Forty percent of Hispanics live in poverty. The median household income for non-Hispanic whites in Chattanooga is $50,085 compared to $26,568 for African Americans and 34,627 for Hispanics. The difference in composite ACT scores at high schools such as Brainerd (14.7) are ten points less than at affluent, largely white high schools like Signal Mountain (24.7). Gun violence is concentrated in communities wracked by poverty and isolation. I don’t think civic and governmental leaders have conspired to keep lower-income people down. Rather, city boosters thought economic development would trickle down and everyone would be better off. That has not occurred in Chattanooga. In fairness, it hasn’t happened elsewhere.

COA: What does progress look like in Tennessee?

Chilton: Other metropolitan regions can learn from Chattanooga. I’m buoyed by the efforts of advocates from all backgrounds (religious, civic, nonprofits, community groups, business leaders) who are uniting to raise awareness of inequality and reclaim their communities.

Chattanooga’s most recent election is an example of people pursuing a new community agenda. Traditional pillars of the civic infrastructure — Chambers of Commerce, Foundations, Businesses, and Government — have driven the local agenda for the last 30+ years. They have done some amazing things and that should not be lost in the discussion. But, one thing is clear — their plans don’t necessarily support the needs of regular citizens. Groups like CALEB can play a pivotal role of articulating, communicating and implementing a more socially responsible agenda that both challenges growth politics and leverages power to support those left behind in the innovation economy.

The Rising River Economic Summit will be held from 9:30 am to 2:00 pm on Saturday, May 20th. The event is free to the public, although a donation of $10.00 is requested for lunch if attendees are able to pay.

Registration for the event is required due to limited space.