These are remarkable days in Florida. Our state is adding population at the rate of a city the size of Tampa each year. GDP has risen from $967 billion in 2017 to more than $1.1 trillion in 2019. In just this past year, the increase in Florida’s GDP was bigger than the entire economies of 15 other states, including Alaska and New Mexico. Our state’s GDP is nearly as large as that of Australia.
Nor is the growth confined to lower-wage sectors like retail sales and restaurants/accommodations. Between 2016 and 2018, manufacturing employment in Florida grew by nearly 13%, and manufacturing output grew by more than 34% to $56 billion — much larger than sectors like agriculture and bigger even than the state’s robust construction sector. Florida has created more than 10% of all jobs nationally during the recovery, and our unemployment rate is below 3.5%.
The economic peanut butter, however, is not spread evenly, either demographically or geographically. About 15% of Floridians still live in poverty. That’s about average compared to the nation at large, but in Florida, children account for a disproportionate share of the poor — more than 870,000 kids, about one in five children in Florida, live in poverty. About 60% of all children in Florida are eligible for free or reduced lunch based on their household incomes. More than 75,000 schoolchildren are homeless.
Those children are not distributed evenly among Florida’s 1,450-plus ZIP codes — a fact that reflects clusters of families mired in generational poverty. Alone, Miami-Dade County, where one in four children lives in poverty, accounts for more than 15% of all poor children in Florida. About 20% of the poor children in Florida live in just 39 ZIP codes, areas like 32811 in southwest Orlando and 33135 astride 8th Street in downtown Miami. The state’s poorest ZIP code, according to the Florida Chamber of Commerce, is 32304 on the west side of Tallahassee.
There is no shortage of efforts and programs to try to help poor people, but most are oriented toward individuals or families in crisis or focus on a single aspect of poverty — food assistance or helping with childcare, housing or reducing crime, for example.
The organizers of the smartest initiatives, like Lift in Orlando, which I wrote about several months ago, have realized that creating pathways out of poverty involves addressing all the root causes that keep people poor — from education to housing to transportation to health care to justice to giving people a voice and active roles in revitalizing their own neighborhoods.
To its credit, the Florida Chamber and its foundation are taking a leadership role in facilitating local efforts that emerge at the ZIP code level. Michael Williams, director of the Chamber Foundation’s Prosperity Initiative, says the foundation wants to serve as a clearinghouse for ZIP code-specific data, contacts and information on initiatives like Lift that have been effective at creating change.
“We want to pull together enough data and promising practices that business leaders can look at their communities” and feel that a focused effort can make a difference, Williams says. “It’s hard for people to wrap their heads around solving the problems of 870,000 kids, so we’re trying to get down to as local a level as we can.”
The chamber doesn’t mean to supplant ongoing government programs or the work of local non-profits but believes that local business leaders will respond because they have a vested interest in breaking the cycle of generational poverty. “The kids that we’re talking about, that’s their workforce in 10 or 15 years,” Williams says.
The chamber’s efforts are already bearing some fruit. Jim Murdaugh, president of Tallahassee Community College, the largest employer in the 32304 ZIP code, learned that a large number of residents were on probation for some kind of criminal violation. Many, he learned, didn’t have a GED. He worked with local officials to make getting a GED a condition of getting off probation — and his college will bear the $30 cost of putting each person through a GED program. “That can be replicated throughout the state in a year,” says Mark Wilson, the Florida Chamber’s president and CEO.
Meanwhile, some notable business families — the Huizengas in Broward County and the Hosseini family in Volusia County — have announced they’re “adopting” ZIP codes and will quarterback local efforts to build opportunity.
Wilson says his organization views creating pathways out of poverty as both a moral imperative and as good for business. Today’s children are tomorrow’s workforce, and “talent is replacing tax incentives as the No. 1 factor in economic development,” he says. The goal — tracked on the chamber’s Scorecard at flchamber.com/research/the-florida-scorecard — is “to reduce the number of children in poverty to less than 10% and create opportunities out of poverty for all children by 2030.”
On May 19-20, the chamber will host a Business Leaders Summit on Prosperity and Economic Opportunity in Sarasota, with a presentation on best practices around Florida and information on ZIP codes around the state and the factors that create generational poverty.
“Thousands of business leaders across Florida get accused of not stepping up to the call on issues like prosperity,” Wilson says. “It’s been my experience that 100% of the time, when business leaders are exposed to the data … they step forward and say, ‘I didn’t know that. Now that I do, what can we do about it?’ ”
— Mark Howard, Executive Editor
Read more in Florida Trend's March issue.
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