Florida received a prestigious Christmas gift.
It became the nation’s third most populous state, according to U.S. Census Bureau population estimates.
There are now 19.9 million of us who call the Sunshine State home. That’s astounding.
Here’s how we did it: We inched ahead of New York by adding an average of 803 new residents each day between July 1, 2013 and July 1, 2014. Florida’s population grew by 293,000 over that period, reaching 19.9 million. New York’s residents increased by 51,000 to 19.7 million.
Out west, California held on to its No. 1 ranking as the nation’s most populous state, with 38.8 million residents, followed by Texas, at 27 million.
It’s hard to digest that we’re bigger that New York. True, in Florida, a much-larger state, we have the luxury of spreading out. But will we soon feel squeezed? In South Florida, where the majority of new residents have relocated, Miami-Dade/Broward region has just under 5 million residents. Many of us are reminded of these numbers every day in bumper-to-bumper traffic along every major artery. And not only during rush hour.
With those numbers, the obvious question becomes: Can our infrastructure sustain so many people?
Lawmakers, from mayors to state legislators to the governor, must address how to accommodate so many new residents. They bring more tax revenue, and more challenges — from the aforementioned traffic problems, to the need for affordable housing to job creation to quality-of-life issues such as preserving public green spaces. Unlike New York, South Florida doesn’t have a Central Park; it has the bay and the Everglades as major areas for recreation, which, of course, brings up issues of water supply. Can the Biscayne Aquifer sustain us all?
Fortunately, our public school population, currently at manageable levels, will not take a direct hit since those moving here tend to be in their early 40s, figures show.
So now, we also need to work to improve our standing in other areas, all in the name of maintaining — and improving — our quality of life. Here are other Florida rankings that should cause concern:
▪ At 19.5 percent, Florida is the nation’s second most poverty-stricken state, according to earlier U.S. Census Bureau’s figures. That means not all residents are getting a piece of the growth pie; it’s imperative that we reduce the gap between the haves and have-nots.
▪ Florida ranks 49th in per capita state and local spending for education, yet funding for the state Department of Corrections is so robust it ranks 23rd.
▪ Despite advances, Florida ranks 42nd in the amount of student spending — $8,371 per primary and secondary school student in fiscal year 2012 — considerably less than the national average of $10,607.
▪ Florida ranks 43rd in quality of services for the elderly and disabled and their caregivers.
▪ Florida ranks 51st among the states and the District of Columbia in per capita funding received from the Affordable Care Act, forfeiting at least $300 million in tax revenue and $51 billion because of its failure to expand Medicaid. As a consequence, Florida ranks 48th among states in the percentage of uninsured residents, at about 20 percent.
Now that we’re No. 3, we have bragging rights over New Yorkers. But we’ll have to be smarter and more nimble to absorb this tsunami of humanity. Oh, one solution would be to improve the way we get around and bring down our population of 16 million vehicles.