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June 6, 2004 - Miami Herald

Miami-Dade's middle class shrinking

By Michael Vasquez

Miami's relatively small middle class is dwindling, a trend that endangers the future economic vitality of all of Miami-Dade County, according to a report released today by the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

Using information from a variety of sources, including U.S. Census data and federal economic and labor statistics, the report, titled ''Growing the Middle Class: Connecting All Miami-Dade Residents to Economic Opportunity,'' portrays Miami-Dade as a community of enormous potential but one nonetheless struggling to lead its poor residents into prosperity or keep the middle class households it already has.

Among the report's findings:

 The gap between rich and poor widened nationally during the 1990s, but in Miami the trend was even more pronounced. After adjusting for inflation, the richest 20 percent of Miami households saw their income rise 29 percent, while income for the poorest 20 percent fell 5 percent.

 Wide disparities separate Miami-Dade's racial and ethnic groups in areas such as income, poverty rates and homeownership rates. Non-Hispanic whites fared better than other groups in all these indicators.

 Numerous obstacles prevent Miami-Dade's poor from achieving middle class status, including high housing costs relative to wages, limited access to mainstream financial institutions, and urban sprawl that can leave the poor isolated from where the good jobs are.

The region's low level of educational attainment -- only 16 percent of Miamians have a bachelor's degree -- also makes it difficult for the poor to climb the economic ladder.

 A strong middle class benefits the entire community, by strengthening the local school district and bulking up the tax base local governments can use to provide services. Miami-Dade has less trouble attracting middle-class residents than it does keeping them -- once the county's immigrant arrivals establish themselves financially, they often flock to other locales, especially Broward County.


In terms of increasing the middle class, the Brookings report offers several recommendations: strengthening local public education, improving access to high-quality jobs through expanded public transportation, and raising the quality of neighborhoods to reduce middle class flight.

The report is part of the Living Cities Census Series, an examination of cities nationwide funded by a public private partnership that includes the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Bank of America, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, among others.

Miami's inability to reduce poverty is well-documented -- according to Census figures it ranks as the poorest large city in the nation. But Miami-Dade County as a whole also has its problems: median income levels well below the national average, and the 12th-highest poverty rate out of the 100 largest counties, the Brookings report says.

The success of both city and suburbs are inexorably linked, says Brookings Institution research analyst Rebecca Sohmer, who helped craft the report.

''This is not about inner-city poverty, this is something that affects everyone in the county,'' Sohmer said. ``We're hoping that it will be a wake-up call.''

Miami's large foreign-born population, often blamed for the city's poverty rates, is not as much of a factor as some

think, Sohmer said. She noted that other cities such as San Diego also have huge immigrant populations, but nevertheless have a more equal distribution of income.

When middle class residents left Miami-Dade, it was often Broward County that benefited. Between 1995 and 2000, according to the study, 90,000 Miami-Dade residents moved to Broward. Only 17,000 Broward residents moved to Miami-Dade during that time, the report says. Of the 90,000 people Miami-Dade lost to Broward, a sizable majority were middle class.

To be sure, some factors in the Dade-to-Broward migration were beyond anyone's control. Hurricane Andrew, the massive 1992 storm that devastated South Dade, led many who'd lost their homes to pack up and move to Pembroke Pines or Miramar. The relocation pattern spiked by the storm remained steady as the decade progressed. ''Hurricane Andrew accelerated it a bit,'' said Charles Blowers, chief of the research section of the Miami-Dade Planning and Zoning Department.

Even without the storm, Blowers said Miami-Dade would have been hard-pressed to compete with what Broward offered at the time: newer, cheaper housing and less-clogged roads.

''Now, Interstate 75 is just as bad as Interstate 95,'' Blowers said.


Taking its cue from the Brookings study, a new group dubbed the Community Prosperity Initiative -- comprised of representatives from various interests including government, business and academia -- is set to launch Monday. Among the group's stated goals is raising the standard of living for Miami's poorest citizens.

The current wave of redevelopment sweeping the city will also help the poor, said Miami Mayor Manny Diaz. The numerous large-scale projects planned for Miami include some in previously-neglected communities such as Wynwood and Overtown.

Diaz said the city is attracting new middle-class residents with its burst of high-rises, while simultaneously creating well-paying construction jobs for those who already live here.

''We're getting it back,'' Diaz said of the city's middle class. ``You're seeing some success.''

The 2010 census, Diaz predicted, will likely reveal an entirely different Miami.

However, Miami City Commissioner Tomás Regalado said the city must make sure poor residents are helped by the current changes, not pushed out. He said many of the poor in his district are elderly people living on fixed incomes, who stand little chance of making the jump to middle class.

''They have endured the hard times, they have a right to stay,'' Regalado said. ``It's nice to have a large middle class, but we have to take care of the poor first.''