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Miami Herald - November 20, 2001

By Jason Grotto and William Yardley

The city of Miami, whose waterfront refuges for the prosperous and prominent have long shadowed asphalt flatlands filled with the poor and anonymous, now has the highest poverty rate of any large U.S. city, according to Census estimates released today.

Nearly one-third of the city's population -- 32 percent of residents -- lives in poverty, a greater percentage than in any other city of 250,000 or more, the Census survey indicates.

The new estimates rank Miami ranks above scores of other cities so often associated with urban struggles of poverty, crime and suburban flight, and they reveal a dramatic disparity between Miami and the rest of South Florida.

Miami-Dade County, with a poverty rate of about 20 percent, ranks 16th among large counties. Broward County, the destination of many former Miamians, has a 12 percent rate, just above the national 11 percent.

Although economic divisions within Miami itself are not documented in this census release, observers say they are crucial to explaining why the city's opulent image is not a fully accurate one.

``This is a city of extremes,'' said City Manager Carlos Gimenez. ``You have rich and very rich and you have a lot of poor people. What we don't have is the middle class. We need to find ways to get the middle class back into the city.''

The new estimates are based on a survey the Census Bureau conducted of 900,000 households from January through December 2000. These are separate from the 2000 Census. Poverty data from that count, which will be far more detailed, will be released next year.

The annual income below which the Census Bureau considers a family of four to be in poverty is $17,603. For a single person, the poverty level is $8,794.

Although the new estimates rank Miami highest, a broad margin of error in the survey means that the next six cities -- New Orleans, Atlanta, Newark, Fresno, Buffalo and Cleveland -- could have similar or possibly even higher poverty rates.

Miami is accustomed to being prominent on the list. The city ranked fourth the last time the Census Bureau measured poverty in cities, in the 1990 Census. That time, the city's poverty rate was 31 percent, essentially the same as the current survey. It was third in 1980, at 25 percent.


Constant immigration of often poor, unskilled workers into the area is the usual explanation for Miami's consistently high poverty rate, but immigration is not the only factor in what some experts portray as a complicated cycle that also includes poor schools and corporate detachment.

``Blame it on the immigrants -- I get a little tired of it over and over again,'' said Bruce Nissen, a researcher at Florida International University's Center for Labor Research and Studies.

``Florida is so geared toward tourism, retail trade, agriculture, personal services. As long as we're locked into that form of economy, we're going to stay a low-wage state. You could end all immigration and that would still be the case.''

Nissen said proposals such as creating a state minimum wage above the federal minimum wage are not well-received among legislators in Tallahassee. At the same time, he said, some corporations that pay low wages in South Florida exploit the modest expectations of some immigrants rather than set a civic standard by paying more. ``My attitude is you have to block the low road and pave the high road,'' Nissen said. Jacqui Colyer, a lifelong Miamian who has watched her old Liberty City street become a wasteland of vacant lots, said poor residents must welcome and encourage urban gentrification, even if it displaces some of them.

``When you have concentrated poverty in a community, it just continues to spiral downward,'' said Colyer, who runs an employment training center outside the city on North Miami Avenue.

Colyer said businesses, like the middle class, often flee poor neighborhoods, leaving no economic anchor to motivate investors to come to the area.

But Colyer also thinks developers need to take risks and show leadership. She wants to see new housing in Miami with the same attention to landscaping and architectural touches found in suburbs.


Miami-Dade County's welfare-to-work program has been criticized repeatedly this year for not moving welfare recipients quickly into the work force. In September, the head of the South Florida branch of the state's job-training agency resigned. Last summer, the Urban Institute in Washington reported that Miami-Dade County had the smallest welfare decline of any Florida county.

The problem is county-wide, but poverty is sharpest in the city. New Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, who ran on a platform of stimulating economic growth in the city's poorest areas, said an aging population contributes to the trouble. ``We have a lot of retired people on fixed incomes, on incomes below poverty level,'' Diaz said.

Miami's Department of Community Development is charged with improving housing and employment situations for low-income residents. At the agency's Allapattah One-Stop Center on NW 36th Street, Joni Harris, an assistant director of the department, helps oversee services ranging from typing lessons to homeownership grants. Breaking the city's cycle of poverty, Harris says, means attacking on many fronts. ``We're trying to help build the people and the buildings,'' Harris said. Rather than see the consistently high poverty rate as evidence of a failure in social services, Harris said, ``It tells me we need more resources than we have.'' Leaning back in a chair in one of many computer rooms at the center is Thomas Addison, 25. Music pumps through his headphones as he scrolls a state website looking for construction and manual labor jobs.

He gets some work with a temporary service, but they did not call Monday, Addison said, ``so I came over here. I'm hoping to find something permanent.'' Addison lives with his mother and younger brother in public housing in Liberty City. He hopes to find work that pays between $6 and $8 per hour. ``That'd be real good, to get something constantly coming in,'' Addison said. ``That way you could pay your bills and still have some change in your pockets.'' Minimum wage is $5.15 an hour, which makes $10,712 annually before taxes. But that, notes Hilda Fernandez of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, is not far above the poverty level for a single person. And 25 percent of Miami households earn less than $10,000 a year.

Fernandez is among many who would like to see a higher state minimum wage, but she also expected Miami's poverty rate to have improved. ``I'm surprised. I see a lot of new things happening -- economic development efforts, new housing,'' Fernandez said. ``It's a very curious question.'' Fernandez said the number of on-the-street homeless has declined, as have teen pregnancies, potential signs that things are improving for the poor. But she also said there is an active underground economy, fueled by cheap and plentiful immigrant labor, that may make the poverty figures somewhat misleading. ``Legitimate businesses get competition from those that hire illegals,'' complicating the market, she said. But it is unclear whether illegal workers are driving the poverty rate up or down.

Either way, Fernandez said, ``If we haven't changed, that means that other cities have done better.'' Herald staff writer Oscar Corral contributed to this report