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Miami Herald - November 20, 2001
POVERTY RATE A DISTINCTIVE CHALLENGE FOR MIAMI
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
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
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.
STUCK IN CYCLE
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