Census figures show that 28.5% of Miami's 362,000 residents live below the poverty level, pushing the city ahead of Newark, N.J.; New Orleans; Buffalo, N.Y.; and Cleveland.
Economists and demographers point to a host of factors: Massive immigration of unskilled and uneducated workers from Latin America and the Caribbean; middle-class flight to suburban areas; an aging population within city boundaries; corporate relocations out of Miami-Dade; and government ineptitude and corruption.
And in a city where ethnic and racial conflict dominates local elections, substantive dialogue on poverty, economic development and other key issues is rare.
That may change under Mayor Manny Diaz. The Cuban-born businessman and political newcomer, barely a year in office, has surprised many by openly discussing the city's dismal record on tackling the problems of its impoverished inner-city areas.
Last fall, Diaz proposed a list of initiatives that, while hardly a cure, have been hailed as long overdue. The city has reached an agreement with a Boston-based company, Accion International, to provide micro loans -- from $500 to $50,000 -- for startups that may not qualify for traditional SBA loans. The company has pledged to loan $1.7 million over three years. Another program will provide matching funds for low-income residents who open savings accounts.
The city also has launched a "financial literacy" program to help educate residents about federal tax credits and other financial and educational benefits. "This is truly at the top of our agenda," says Javier Fernandez, policy coordinator for Diaz.
But even Diaz has acknowledged that there is no quick fix. Miami's low-income neighborhoods continue to attract low-skilled immigrants en masse.
Some say the city's inability to diversify its economy compounds the problem. "It's a very complex problem," admits Fernandez.
Diaz's next measure: A citywide task force charged with developing a blueprint for reducing poverty.
IN THE NEWS
Key West -- Scheduled international passenger service has returned to Key West International Airport for the first time since 1961, when service to Cuba was abruptly halted. Orlando-based Discover Air has inaugurated nonstop service between Key West and Nassau, Bahamas, three times a week.
Miami -- Miami-based advertising agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky has been named National Agency of the Year by Creativity magazine for the second consecutive year.
The Spanish-language daily El Nuevo Herald has signed a news-sharing partnership with Univision's WLTV-Channel 23. The paper is ending a similar agreement with Telemundo's WSCV-Channel 51.
Coconut Grove's long-troubled upscale shopping mall The Streets of Mayfair will try to reinvent itself as a mixed-use office, retail and dining complex. The 23-year-old landmark began as an opulent indoor mall and hotel catering to high-end shoppers and foreign visitors.
Miami-Dade -- South Florida's foundations saw total assets drop 5.5% in 2001, but charitable giving rose 5.8%. The Donors Forum of South Florida reports that a weak stock market caused assets to decline from $9.13 billion to $8.63 billion in 2001. Overall giving increased from $475.6 million to $503.5 million, officials say, because most foundations honored commitments made before those declines.
Miami-Dade Community College, the nation's largest two-year college, has received accreditation to offer upper-level courses, allowing it for the first time to offer bachelor's degrees. MDCC has also announced the start of its first Honors College, a highly selective two-year program designed to prepare students for advanced study at top undergraduate colleges.
British beverage giant Diageo has closed its sale of Miami-based Burger King to a consortium of investors led by Texas Pacific Group. The deal nearly fell through after the buyers balked at the $2.26 billion asking price, agreed upon last July before a period of poor earnings. Texas Pacific renegotiated, paying $1.5 billion. Burger King, founded in Miami in 1954, will remain based in Miami. Bradley Blum, former vice chairman of Orlando-based Darden Restaurants, has been named new CEO. John Dasburg will remain chairman.
Tec de Monterrey, Mexico's largest private university system, will open a branch office in Miami offering Spanish-language graduate degree and continuing education courses.
The Miami-based Jewish Star Times, published by a subsidiary of media giant Knight Ridder, has ceased publication. Despite a paid subscription of about 67,000, the 3-year-old weekly struggled to find a solid advertising base and had difficulty expanding into Broward and Palm Beach counties, where the larger Jewish Journal dominates the market.
Miami Lakes -- American Express has opened a 100,000-sq.-ft. Latin American headquarters here, where it will consolidate about 500 workers scattered around south Florida.
Monroe County -- The U.N.'s International Maritime Organization has designated about 3,000 square miles of water surrounding the Florida Keys as a "Particularly Sensitive Sea Area." The new protection prohibits large ships from passage into the zone and restricts ship anchoring throughout much of it.
Opa-Locka -- Columbia, S.C.-based SMI Steel will open a $4.5-million facility here. The company expects to hire 50 people over the next two years.
CONVENTION CENTER PLANS EXPANSION
MIAMI BEACH -- The city-owned Miami Beach Convention Center plans to add 70,000 square feet. City officials say the $60-million expansion is necessary to draw larger, more lucrative events.