Opinion: Connect the dots between Hamilton County schools, jobs, wages and leaders

It is always gratifying to hear the words Chattanooga and "new" or "2nd Volkswagen plant" in the same sentence, so this week's Times Free Press headline saying an expansion might happen here for VW's ID.Buzz - an electric version of the iconic Volkswagen bus - is music to our ears.

But as proud as we are of our new niche in the nation's auto assembly business, we can't fool ourselves into thinking all is right with the world, and we especially we can't fool ourselves into thinking all is right with Tennessee and Chattanooga children, the workers of tomorrow.

Another headline jarred us Thursday: "76% of children in area live in struggling households."

That was the finding of the newest "Alice report" from the United Ways of Tennessee. More than half of children in Tennessee and more than three quarters of those in south and central Chattanooga live in households that cannot afford the local cost of living. The vast majority of those children (71%) were school age between 5 and 17.

Make no mistake. Struggling households mean struggling children. And struggling schools.

First the struggling children: To provide a clearer picture of the number of people who are financially struggling in an area, United Way researchers compare the cost of living in a community to wages and other costs, rather than just using the federal poverty line as a metric. When households do not earn enough to afford the basic costs of child care, food, health care, housing, a phone, taxes and transportation - or are below the federal poverty line - they are considered Alice households. Alice is short for the reporting criteria: "asset limited, income constrained, employed."

That last word is key - employed. This report isn't measuring the children in homes with no jobs. It's measuring the likelihood of struggle in homes with one or more earners.

And, no. Don't fall for the old tropes that this is an inner-city problem or a racial problem.

Of Tennessee's 826,000 children in Alice households, 444,000 were white, according to the report.

Yes, the 76% in south and central Chattanooga is daunting. But the figure in Red Bank and the northern part of Chattanooga is as well: 42%. In the rest of Hamilton County, it was 41%.

Across Southeast Tennessee, the rate was 60% of children in Bledsoe, Grundy, Marion, Meigs, Rhea and Sequatchie counties. It was 48% in Bradley, McMinn and Polk counties.

Of course, the pandemic worsened things, but so have our state leaders. You may recall Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee ending extra pandemic unemployment aid early, saying the boost was a disincentive for people to work.

On the contrary, United Way's 211 helpline service showed real need and challenges around the affordability of housing and utilities. Lesley Scearce, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Chattanooga, told the TFP data showed low and stagnating wages were key issues.

The Alice study found that among households with two working adults, one in three children were below the Alice line. In two-adult households with one working adult, the rate was 65%. For single-adult working households, the rate was 77%.

"It takes more than two full-time jobs, and [you are] still unable to provide basic needs for your children," Scearce said. "And that, to us, is a crisis that needs addressing."

And clearly parents are working. Hamilton County's jobless rate was a mere 2.9 percent, according to figures released last week. On Thursday, the local job listing website ChattanoogaCalling.com listed 33,746 available jobs in the Chattanooga area, or more than four times as many job openings as the 7,975 people counted as unemployed last month.

But Tennessee has no minimum wage, and wages here remain comparatively low. Last March, the median household income of a Hamilton County resident was $47,880 a year. The U.S. average was $53,482 a year.

Also last year, median housing prices in Chattanooga had increased more than 80% since 2015, leaving 43% of renters defined as "housing burdened," spending more than 30% of their income on housing. Among them, 22% are "housing insecure," meaning they spent more than half of their income on housing, putting them at risk of eviction or foreclosure.

This brings us back to the hopeful news of VW. Those jobs do tend to pay a bit higher.

But that's only part of the puzzle, which brings us back to struggling schools. Chattanooga has to produce a workforce that can land and hold these better-paying jobs.

This year, we have an opportunity to elect new local leaders to be bold about finding ways to do this.

Chattanooga 2.0, a local Chamber of Commerce-supported organization that began in 2015 to help our schools graduate jobs-ready students by ensuring all youth receive a quality education, asked our four Hamilton County mayoral candidates - three Republican and one Democratic - to respond to an education equity questionnaire. One Republican, current county commission chair Sabrena Smedley, had not responded Wednesday (though she says she will).

We hope VW does bring us more jobs. But more than that, we hope our leaders will finally, fully become engaged in growing our county by growing and educating our children.

Voters: This questionnaire and its answers are required reading. The full questionnaire may be viewed on Chattanooga 2.0's website.