Neighborhood Transformation
Neighborhood Transformation
CitiStates Report:
Economy Stuck on Bridge
Between Rich, Poor

By Manuel Pastor
Web-posted: Sun-Senttinal 7:13 p.m. Nov. 20, 2000

South Florida stands at the crossroads. Positioned to take leadership as the trade and financial capital of the Americas, it has many of the assets needed to become a true city-state.

So what's slowing progress?

Neal Peirce and Curtis Johnson point to crucial gaps, including the need to rebuild the region's tattered infrastructure for trade and travel. But equally tattered is South Florida's social infrastructure, especially the sharp gaps between rich and poor.

The income differences that strike the eye, gleaming mansions not far from crumbling homes, are no illusion. A recent study of economic growth in more than 70 different metro areas in the U.S. reports that those making the most progress on reducing poverty and inequality grew fastest.

South Florida's real (inflation-adjusted) per capita income grew by only 1 percent between 1990 and 1998, well below the 12 percent posted by the nation as a whole.

The usual explanations do not suffice. It's not just immigration: Los Angeles County, home to more undocumented workers than any other area in the country and site of the worst race riots in modern U.S. history, scored nine spots up the equity scale from Miami.

It isn't just Miami: While the city itself fares poorly, it is actually 17th in a list of 77 U.S. central cities, implying that the other cities and unincorporated areas in Miami-Dade are contributing significantly to the county's overall ranking as third worst for regional equity.

It isn't just Miami-Dade: Using another measure of inequality for a sample of 182 areas, developed by Janice Madden of the University of Pennsylvania, Miami-Dade is the seventh worst, but Palm Beach is in the top quarter of those facing the challenges of inequality and Broward not far behind.

And it isn't just that the region has an abundant share of super-wealthy. The percentage of South Florida school children qualifying for free or reduced cost meals, one of the best measures of child poverty, is nearly twice the level of most other large regions. South Florida's per capita income growth lagged the national average by about one-third over the 1990s.

It's easy to assume that concerns about poverty and distribution are merely the gripes of liberals or the positions of minority politicians. According to the old model, hard-headed business leaders should focus on growth, a task that requires keeping both government and community demands at arm's length. The problem is that regional growth itself depends on equity.

The secret of city-states lies in their ability to get sectors within their region to network their businesses, build their skills and pull together on a single economic policy. Poverty and widening differentials make such cooperation difficult, and they lead to under-investment in public education as the wealthy escape the system and the poor remain mired.

It is key to engage business leadership to get directly involved in the equity issue. In Charlotte, N.C., business helped city government launch a program to target poor neighborhoods, for example. Joint Venture Silicon Valley Network, everyone's poster-child for successful business-led regional revitalization efforts, has changed its official mission.

It was once "collaborating to compete in the global economy." Now it's trying to "enable all people in Silicon Valley to succeed in the new economy."

Also, it is important for community organizations to change their perspectives. When poor neighborhoods are passed up, their leaders often draw inward, thinking that the only chance for economic revival lies in attracting investment and jobs to their own confines.

Yet reverse commuting to available regional employment could be a way to bring income to poor neighborhoods.

Moreover, the central cities in each of South Florida's counties are projected to have relatively rapid job growth, creating opportunities for community-based development; indeed, there are increasing challenges of gentrification in some low-income neighborhoods in the region. The tools are there; is the political will? There are positive signs. The South Florida Regional Planning Council has stressed common ground, noting that bringing economic development back to inner city areas throughout the region could reduce poverty even as it guards against sprawl.

The council released an innovative report arguing for a regional approach to moving the poor from welfare to work. The South Florida Community Development Coalition, comprised of local community development groups, has worked to bring together community developers across the three counties to understand their common agenda and help steer investment to places where market forces alone won't do the trick. The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce recently held discussions with the coalition about neighbor hood development, affordable housing and regional strategies.

This new kind of collaboration is key. In one of my last stays in Miami, the Heat was playing the Knicks in the NBA semi-finals. I was struck by the ability of the players and the enthusiasm of the South Florida fans. In the home of the Marlins, the Dolphins and countless teams large and small, South Floridians know one thing: You can have the greatest individual players but the real moments of triumph come when they have learned to play as a team.

That's the secret of city-states.

They're only as strong as the team.

Poverty and inequality mean wasted human resources and depleted social capital.

Inequality is as much an issue for business as it is for community activists. The region's economic future relies on effectively delivering opportunity to all South Florida's residents.