Battling income inequality in Miami area needs a team effort

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Jobs, yes. But we need high paying jobs. People attend a job fair in Miami Lakes.
Jobs, yes. But we need high paying jobs. People attend a job fair in Miami Lakes. AP

The entrenched disparity in Miami-Dade between the haves and the have-nots — and how that imbalance will affect the county’s financial future — are challenges from which no one can look away. The gap between the rich and the poor has grown perilously wide. And there are numbers to back up a financial doomsday prognosis about Miami-Dade’s economic disparity:

According to a recent and comprehensive study by Florida International University — ordered up by several county commissioners, with Commission Chair Jean Monestime in the lead and forward-looking legislation sponsored by Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava — out of the county’s 3 million residents, 530,320 live below the poverty level. And that’s not somebody else’s problem: Poverty can fuel neighborhood violence, lower academic achievement, lead to worse health outcomes and squander potential, all of which come with community-wide costs.

The FIU Metropolitan Prosperity Study says that the current real-estate boom hasn’t made a dent in the high level of poverty or allowed local incomes to regain ground lost during the recession. Recently, the study’s researchers eloquently laid out its findings to the Editorial Board. Although they’re using 2014 figures, the revelations are still sobering — and disturbing, and exasperating.

Mark Rosenberg, chair of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and FIU’s president, wrote on the Herald Opinion page last week that we need to act now: "If Miami-Dade leverages its strengths strategically, it can rise to the next level and take its place alongside New York, London, Hong Kong and Paris. If it doesn’t, it may well plateau or even fade." Sobering words.

The imbalance clearly is not unique to this county, but studies have shown that here, poverty remains a higher hurdle to clear, a deeper hole out of which to climb than in other major metropolitan areas. County commissioners want to change that narrative. They must.

Miami-Dade’s poverty level in 2014 matched that of 2010, despite record hiring levels and the lowest unemployment rate in eight years, a condition the Beacon Council points to as a positive signal in its One Community One Goal initiative.

"We’ve got more total employees in Miami-Dade than ever before," said Kevin Greiner, an author of the FIU study. "But since the recession, a lot of the good, middle-income-paying jobs have not returned. And they’ve been replaced by lower-income-paying jobs." There’s the rub.

Here’s proof: In 2014, the median household income in the county hit $42,926. That’s 12 percent less than it was in 2000, when measured in today’s dollars. And while inflation outpacing income gains has been a national trend, the FIU report notes the situation is worse in Miami-Dade. Decent housing alone is practically unattainable at that level.

The study presents a five-point blueprint for solutions from which no one should shrink. Not state and local elected officials, not civic leaders, not the affluent, not even the residents who have gotten the short end of the income stick. Many community stakeholders have already stepped up, but too many are working in silos — and others are taking a pass. This effort needs a leader every bit as focused on ensuring all the moving parts of this complicated human challenge are in sync as the We Will Rebuild juggernaut after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Now, who in this community will be the voice, the face, of that challenge?