Millions of us remain worse off today than we were in 2008, the first year of the recession. Last month the Census Bureau released new data that confirms what too many Florida residents already know from hard personal experience:
• In 2012, more than 20.1 percent of Floridians lived in poverty (under $23,492 for a family of four) compared with just 13.2 percent in 2008.
• The poor are getting poorer and the middle class is disappearing. Many more Florida residents are making less than $35,000 annually, and many fewer are making $75,000 or more. Florida already had higher income inequality than most states.
• More than 3.8 million Floridians were uninsured in 2012.
What’s going on is hardly a mystery — there simply are not enough jobs. The national unemployment rate, 5.8 percent in 2008, today is 7.3 percent nationally and 7 percent in Florida. The underemployment rate in Florida, which also counts those who can’t get as many work hours as they want, or have given up looking for jobs altogether, is 15 percent.
Florida’s people are experiencing real hardship. Nearly one in four Florida households receives Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (formerly food stamps), more than double the share of Floridians in 2008.
Despite this, people still struggle to put food on the table. A Gallup poll shows that between 2008 and 2012 nearly 29 percent of Florida families with children faced food hardship — fourth worst in the nation. More than a million Floridians pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing, putting them at risk of homelessness.
Simple policy choices can protect people from the worst consequences of poverty and create future prosperity. The new Census data reveals that millions of people were kept out of poverty by SNAP benefits, unemployment insurance, and tax credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Food stamps protect young children from hospitalization, anemia, and problems with cognitive, social and behavioral development. Young children from families that receive the EITC do better in school and earn more as adults.
Unfortunately, Congress is jeopardizing the already slow recovery. Domestic appropriations from education to infrastructure have been cut by 15.7 percent since 2010. Now a small fraction of one party is pushing us towards economic crisis. Government shutdown and possible default pose unprecedented threats.
In Florida, cuts are already harming our most vulnerable. This year, Florida’s Head Start programs will serve 1,205 fewer children; seniors who need Meals on Wheels are put on waiting lists. Cutting these programs costs us more in the long run. Children who benefit from high quality preschool like Head Start are more successful in school and have better employment and earnings as adults. Meals on Wheels helps seniors stay at home rather than move to far more expensive nursing homes.
Florida is also ground zero in the fight over affordable healthcare. One in five Floridians has no insurance, among the worst records in the nation. Yet Florida has not enacted its own health exchange, refuses to expand Medicaid even though the cost would be borne by the federal government for years, and won’t allow navigators (who help people choose the best insurance for them) at state offices. Florida’s policies combined with battles in Congress are harming our future.
We know what it takes to rebuild the economy and help families: provide unemployment benefits for those who can’t find jobs, maintain nutrition assistance to help people make ends meet, and invest in education from the earliest years to college so workers are trained to meet the needs of a 21st century economy.
We also know how to afford these essential investments: make sure everyone, including the wealthy and big corporations, pays their fair share. Instead, a small group in Congress hopes to force another round of shortsighted cuts to programs like Head Start and Meals on Wheels, slash SNAP benefits, and eliminate the Affordable Care Act.
Nearly four years after the recession officially ended, millions of Americans are worse off than before; wealth is more concentrated at the top; the middle class is declining. We need to change that course. We at Catalyst will continue to monitor and advocate. To get to common ground we need to go to higher ground: a community that takes care of the vulnerable and gives people a hand up in times of need. Our Congress needs to lead, not defeat the public desire to keep our democracy strong and preserve shared prosperity.
Daniella Levine is the founder, President and CEO of Catalyst Miami, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing prosperity and reducing poverty in Miami-Dade.
Editor’s Note: This column has been updated with accurate information about the number of uninsured in Florida.