MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Call it Alexandra Pusateri’s “Dear John” letter to Memphis.
Recently Pusateri, 26, penned her love for the city on her Facebook wall — as she announced that she would be healing her broken heart in San Francisco.
“Dear Memphis,” Pusateri wrote. “I’ve been here in the Bay Area for just over a month now. I’ve been racking my brain, figuring out how to say goodbye to you.”
“The only thing I can really express is how frustratingly in love with you I was — so much so, it made me stay longer than I probably should have. I really tried with you — but Memphis, you have a problem.
“Now, you have a lot of problems: deep-seated racial issues, crime, public transit — those are just a few . But you also have another problem that I’ll be talking about now: stagnancy.”
Pusateri wrote of how, after a six-month job search with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism from the University of Memphis — her specialization is in digital media — she consistently came up empty.
Worse, she said, she couldn’t find a job that paid a livable wage that could help her bide her time until she found work that was comparable to her skills.
Yet when Pusateri applied for digital jobs on the West Coast, she was snapped up right away. The digital producer job she landed pays enough for her to afford decent housing, and enjoy a few other goodies as well.
Which led Pusateri to make this declaration: Cheap rent and food joints won’t grow Memphis as much as living wages will.
“Read my (metaphorical) lips: without living wage jobs that take advantage of the passionate, talented, hard-working young people in Memphis, the city will shrink,” she wrote.
Pusateri’s story apparently struck a chord: It garnered more than 600 shares and more than 900 likes. People felt her pain, and shared similar stories.
“A lot of my friends have already moved away,” Pusateri said. “I couldn’t find any decent work here, but I found a job in a month in San Francisco.
“I know people with technical degrees here who have been waiting tables for five years.”
And while Pusateri’s experience is anecdotal, much of it is grounded in reality.
Millennials gravitate to Memphis, but is that enough?
To be sure, her predicament contrasts with research that shows Memphis as one of the top five cities where millennials are moving. One of the attractions is cheap housing.
But so far, millennial migration hasn’t been enough to pull the city from the brink of stagnation.
Memphis, with a population of 652,717, recently lost its title as Tennessee’s largest city. It was overtaken by Nashville, which has a population of 660,388.
Between 2015 and 2016, Nashville gained 6,310 residents, while Memphis lost 1,737 residents.
Of course, some of the reasons Pusateri mentioned, such as Memphis’ high violent crime rate — a situation fueled by its status as the second-poorest city in the nation — is likely causing people to leave.
But Pusateri’s struggle to find employment likely reflects the fact that Memphis’ economy continues to revolve around low-wage and temporary work.
Shelby County, for example, ranks fifth among 11 counties with more than 100,000 workers for having the highest concentration of workers in temporary service jobs.
What that means is that the Memphis economy is more accommodating to people who are trying to eke out an existence, not people with degrees who are trying to make a life.
Another thing: Pusateri’s travails here, as well as those of her friends, beg another question: If she had to go all the way to the West Coast to find a job that paid her a decent salary, how tough must it be for people here who don’t have her education and who cannot leave?
How tough is it for people who must remain here and struggle to make it in jobs that barely cover the rent, or feed themselves or their families?
“I genuinely love Memphis, but I couldn’t make a $10-a- hour job work,” Pusateri said. “This is a deep-seated problem, but Memphis is tearing at the branches instead of dealing with the roots.”
She has a point.
Memphis won’t ever tackle crime, or poverty, or stagnancy if its economy continues to revolve around an axis of temporary jobs and low-paying work.
What it will do is drive the people who can’t do any better to despair and crime — and drive the people who can do better, like Pusateri, away.
Even when they don’t want to go.