Florida fails the working poor

Hi, I’m Gavin Baker, the newest blogger in these parts. I live in Seminole County, north of Orlando, and keep a personal blog at gavinbaker.com.

Researchers at the University of Central Florida released a report earlier this month which sheds light on the shameful side of Florida’s economy.

The report, Poverty in Central Florida, starts by noting that the nationwide poverty rate has increased each year since 2000. That’s a trend: it’s fair to say the Bush era has been one of increasing poverty.

What’s that look like for Florida? In 2006, the nationwide poverty rate was 13.3%. Florida’s rate was slightly lower, at 12.6% statewide. Most of Central Florida ranks below the statewide average, ranging from 9.9% in Seminole County to 11.7% in Orange County; but Sumter County scores a 13.7% poverty rate, and the City of Orlando rates well above the national average at 16.5%.

To put that in perspective, that means 1 in 8 Floridians is impoverished, according to the official definition — or 1 in 6, among Orlando residents.

Those numbers are from 2006 — back when everybody said Florida’s economy was doing “great”. Dig this January 30, 2006 piece from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, headline: Crist isn’t worried about economy. The opening paragraphs:

Don’t try telling Charlie Crist about bursting housing bubbles or any other type of economic slowdowns possibly looming for Florida. He doesn’t want to hear it.

The Republican candidate for governor told Sarasota business leaders on Friday that the economy is booming and he has had enough of people suggesting otherwise. “I’m tired of people being pessimistic” …

Leaving aside the fact that our grinnin’ Gov. was dead wrong in retrospect, I’d argue he was wrong then, too. An economy that leaves one-eighth of its residents in poverty isn’t “booming”. But it’s easier to highlight overall economic indicators, which showed (at the time) relative increases in prosperity, and ignore the 1 in 8 Floridians who don’t get a piece of the pie.

In fact, the official poverty definition is a very flawed calculation, as the study points out (read it if you want to know why). Instead, the study used a working definition of “low income” as households earning half or less of the “area median income” (i.e., families earning about $30,000 per year or less); “middle income” is households between 50% and 120% of the area median income (i.e., about $30,000 to $70,000 a year). So what did the study find?

  • Working poor: Half of “low income” people are working; only 10% are unemployed. (The rest are disabled, retired, students, or homemakers.)
  • One paycheck away: 56% of low-income respondents said they could not pay their bills if they missed one month’s of pay (compared to 38% for middle-income respondents and 24% of upper-income).
  • Health care: A third of low-income families have no health insurance coverage for themselves, spouse or children (compared to 10% of middle-income and 4% of upper-income). A quarter of low-income families reported that in the past year “they needed health care but delayed or did not get it because they could not afford it.”
  • Debt: 25% of low-income families said they are so far in debt that they feel “they will never be able to get out” (compared to 14% of middle-income and 10% of upper-income).

The study also reveals some of the demographics of poverty:

  • Disabled people are disproportionately low-income (72%). Of all disabled people, women, African-Americans, and Hispanics are disproportionately low-income
  • Among retired people, 30% are low-income, 59% are middle-income, and only 12% are upper-income. Low-income retirees are disproportionately women, and disproportionately unmarried (e.g., widows)
  • Low-income families are disproportionately African-American and Hispanic
  • The working poor are disproportionately female
  • Low-income women are much more likely than low-income men — and more likely than women in higher income groups — to be divorced or separated

It’s also true that young and unmarried people are disproportionately low-income, which seems mostly innocuous. But as the study points out:

Thus, many of the working poor will graduate to better incomes once seniority, promotions and raises accrue. That circumstances may improve in ten or fifteen years, however, is little comfort to young workers struggling to pay rent, make payments on a six year old car, or hoping to buy a home and start a family.

Things don’t look so great for the middle class, either:

  • A quarter have no savings
  • Nearly two-fifths couldn’t pay their bills if they missed a month’s pay
  • Half worry their retirement planning is inadequate

The picture this paints is, our economy isn’t working. I have no problem with income disparities, accounting for variances in skill sets, work ethic, careful planning, etc. But income disparities along racial and gender lines — that’s not right. The poor treatment of our elderly and disabled — that’s not right. The fact that so many families who “play by the rules” are struggling to stay afloat — that’s not right.

We’re not talking about lower-income people being unable to afford country club memberships or high-definition TVs. We’re talking about lower-income people being unable to afford basic health care for themselves and their families. We’re talking about lower-income people being unable to save enough money to pay the bills if they miss a month of work (say, due to illness, job loss, or family emergency) — let alone to save enough for a comfortable retirement. (For visceral anecdotes of this, see the coverage of the study on WMFE’s This Week — it starts about 5 minutes into the video.)

A society of decent people shouldn’t accept this as the status quo. And yet, ask our public officials what are the top priorities for the state — few of them will say “solving these problems”.

On the contrary, the Republicans in Tallahassee are stuck in a feedback loop of cutting taxes (mainly benefiting wealthier people) and cutting public services (mainly to the detriment of poorer people). The result: one of the most unfair tax codes in the entire country.

They’re busy cutting funding for education — the golden opportunity to lift people out of poverty — and dismantling the independence of our state universities. (Hmm, who can predict how the Legislature will handle more influence over higher education? Gee, could it be — more budget cuts?!)

Gov. Crist is gently pushing to expand health care programs — alas, if only there were funding!

Thanks to the recent constitutional amendment, Florida’s minimum wage is slowly rising — but a two-income household, working full time, will still earn less than $30,000 a year. Meanwhile, few state agencies have implemented living wage policies for their own employees and contractors.

Finally, Florida’s labor laws are as unfair as ever. Workers have few means to negotiate for higher wages and critical benefits — and so, as the data show, they don’t get them.

So our elected officials are utterly failing to solve this crisis of the middle class and working poor. Thankfully, some religious conservatives are seeing the light. Hopefully, more attention to the issue by academics and media will also raise the issue’s profile. And — if we’re very lucky — a coming surge of progressive power will give us the leadership and the muscle to press forward.

I look forward to the day when our discussion of the economy goes beyond stock prices, and even employment rates, to a fuller picture of economic equity and opportunity. I believe whole-heartedly that effective public programs can provide a significant “return on investment” by helping keep our workforce (and our families) healthy, competitive, and productive. I wish we had a government less hellbent on downsizing government and more concerned with the needs of Florida’s working poor. (Hey — didn’t somebody famous once say something like that?)

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