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Census illustrates disparities

Florida residents are wealthier and better educated compared to a decade ago, but the state's poverty level has remained virtually unchanged.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2002

Florida residents are wealthier and better educated compared to a decade ago, but the state's poverty level has remained virtually unchanged.

A decade of economic growth made Florida a wealthier, better educated state, but left nearly 2-million people mired in poverty, according to U.S. Census data released Thursday.

The latest census snapshot showed a stagnant 12.5 percent of Florida's population remained at the low end of the economic ladder despite a decade in which median household income grew steadily.

In a sign of the state's changing economy, the numbers show that a smaller portion of Florida households are drawing Social Security checks, though that is likely to change as more baby boomers reach retirement age. Pinellas was one of two Florida counties in which the number of households that collected Social Security income dropped from 1990 to 2000.

There's more evidence of Florida's ethnic diversity in the numbers, as well. One in six Floridians were born in another country, far more than the national average of one in 10. Nearly 2.5-million Floridians speak Spanish at home, an increase of 71 percent since 1990.

The findings are another window on Florida's evolution from largely a retirement haven to an increasingly ethnically diverse place that is drawing more working-age people who are having children.

"Florida is becoming less dependent on retirees living on their pensions," said Bruce Nissen, program director for Florida International University's Center for Labor Research and Studies. "It is relying more on younger people working and earning an income."

These trends, along with an influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants, are helping to restructure the state economy.

But with urbanization comes urban problems, also reflected in the numbers. Welfare reform in the mid 1990s reduced public assistance by a phenomenal 50 percent. But the jobs those people were able to get, experts say, didn't pay enough to lift them out of poverty. Thus, the state's poverty rate dropped only slightly to 12.5 percent.

"These people are not working in good jobs because they don't have the education and skills to get the higher-paying jobs, no matter how we try to force them to do so," said Robert E. Crew Jr., a political science professor at Florida State University. "Consequently, there's not much difference in the poverty rate."

Experts say the state's immigrants, a significant number of whom are not U.S. citizens, are taking the lowest-paying service sector jobs. The shifting demographics of the state have the potential to influence the political and economic landscapes.

State Rep. Susan Bucher, D-West Palm Beach, has spent a good deal of time trying to register Hispanic voters, many of whom share her Mexican heritage. She said a half-million eligible Hispanics are not registered to vote.

"This is a population that is going largely unrecognized because we as politicians know who votes," Bucher said. "There really is a huge potential there."

The latest data from Census 2000 came from the long form questionnaire given to roughly one in six households nationwide. The numbers are estimates based on statistical sampling.

The data shows Florida's median household income was $38,819 for 1999, the year for which income statistics were collected. While that is lower than the median income of many other states, it grew by 8.3 percent in the past decade. In comparison, census statistics show California's median income went up by 1.7 percent while New York's increased by slightly less than 1 percent.

The seven counties in the Tampa Bay area -- Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota -- generally kept pace with the statewide median income percentage increase. The exception was Sarasota, which showed a relatively high overall number but slower growth.

The numbers also capture a metropolitan area in transition.

Two counties at the edge of the population core of Tampa and St. Petersburg showed striking signs of change.

Manatee and Pasco counties stand out for their double-digit percentage increases in median household income. Pasco showed a big drop in the people who don't have high school degrees.

Citrus, two counties away from the population core of Tampa and St. Petersburg, had a population that was older, poorer and less well-educated than the two cities to the south. Hernando's income was higher than Citrus', but its college-educated population was low as well.

Beyond median household income, which captures a range of income types including pensions and investment return, census numbers show large increases during the past decade in the average annual paycheck per household, indicating the introduction of better jobs in certain Tampa Bay-area counties.

While that number went up more than 11 percent statewide, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee and Pasco counties saw substantially higher increases, as high as 21.3 percent in Pasco, the southern portion of which has become a bedroom community to Hillsborough and Pinellas.

Jim Hosler, research director for the Hillsborough County Planning Commission, said the Hillsborough number was surprisingly high, but the overall upward trend was not unexpected.

"Tampa Bay and Hillsborough County have grown as a regional center, attracting more lawyers, accountants, engineers, doctors and management consultants," Hosler said. "As you get to be a larger metro area, you're going to attract a number of higher-paying jobs."

But of the seven Tampa Bay-area counties, Hillsborough also showed the highest percentage of people in poverty -- 12.5 percent.

To further highlight the economic disparity, Hillsborough, at 5.2 percent, has the highest portion of larger homes -- those with nine or more rooms -- in the Tampa Bay area. Pasco and Citrus also are growing quickly in that category.

The economic prosperity, however, is not uniform across Florida. Five counties in North Florida -- Gadsden, Hamilton, Dixie, Franklin and Madison -- all had poverty rates exceeding 25 percent.

"Within Florida, there is quite a bit of variability," said Mark Vitner, senior economist for Wachovia Securities, who monitors Florida's economy. "But the trend is that most of the population growth is younger folks looking for jobs."

That observation is starkly illustrated by numbers of Social Security recipients.

There are still plenty of households receiving Social Security -- nearly 2.1-million -- but they make up a smaller percentage of Florida's households. While the number of households grew by 23 percent over the decade, the number of those drawing Social Security grew only 20 percent.

Within the Tampa Bay area, those numbers varied sharply by county. Hernando's number of households getting Social Security increased by 30 percent; Citrus' by 31 percent. Pinellas, which has long had the reputation of being a county of retirees, was one of only two counties in the state -- along with Monroe, home of Key West -- that showed a decrease in the number of households receiving Social Security.

The Pinellas drop is good news to the people who market one of the area's major industries -- tourism. Carole Ketterhagen, executive director of the St. Petersburg-Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said it is another piece of the mosaic that she uses to pitch the area as a vacation spot.

"It gives us a whole different way of presenting the destination," she said. "We've been touting for years how much diversity by age we have. If you just look around, you'll see it."

In another measure important not only to perception, but to economic success and quality of life, the Tampa Bay area showed gains.

Pinellas, along with Hillsborough and Sarasota counties, exceeded the state average in percentage of people with a bachelor's degree or more, a fact that people who study the state's economy closely link to the growth in higher-paying jobs.

In Hillsborough, where the median household income is significantly higher than the state average, more than 25 percent of the population reported having a bachelor's or more advanced degree. That's up from 20 percent in 1990.

Steve Permuth, a University of South Florida education professor, said economic growth and an educated population typically grow together.

"If you want to follow educational growth, follow the money," Permuth said. "The historic definition of the color of education is green. A higher socio-economic group is thinking about success, not survival."

-- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

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