Op-Ed

Agenda: Cut poverty and build opportunity for all

GRIDLOCK: Transportation is one of many serious problems for workers in Miami-Dade.
GRIDLOCK: Transportation is one of many serious problems for workers in Miami-Dade.

South Florida’s economy is growing again, but too few residents are sharing in that growth — many families are stuck in a recession and falling further behind.

Having just been sworn in as a new Miami-Dade County commissioner for District 8, I plan to get to work immediately with my colleagues on an aggressive agenda to cut poverty and build opportunity for everyone in our region. Not only is this the right thing to do for low-income families, it’s also good for our future economic growth.

Nationally, 14.5 percent of Americans live below the federal poverty line — a mere $18,552 per year for a family of three — but here in Miami-Dade the rate is almost 21 percent. That is why earlier this month, Catalyst Miami and the Center for American Progress hosted a summit on cutting poverty and building opportunity in South Florida.

Hundreds of community members, local elected officials, members of the media and service providers came together to talk about poverty in our region and what we need to do to tackle it. Most of the stories we heard were about poverty forcing families to make tough choices. Jobs are still too hard to find, and too many of the ones that are available here in Miami-Dade pay poverty wages.

The current minimum wage in our state is only $7.93 — just over $16,400 annually for a full-time worker. Parents who can’t make enough to make ends meet decide between paying for housing, food, transportation, childcare, healthcare and other basic needs. According to a new report by the United Way of Florida, the cost of these basic needs increased 13 percent between 2007 and 2012.

Let’s look at one of these tough choices — putting food on the table. More than 15 percent of residents in the county, about 384,390 people, are food insecure and don’t necessarily know where they will get their next meal. As we heard at the summit, many parents struggle to provide something as basic as a nutritious meal because of how much they spend on high rents, providing childcare so they can work or paying high medical bills because they lack health insurance, among other expenses.

A recent report by Half in Ten at the Center for American Progress shows that 11 million people in the United States were pushed into poverty in 2013 because of out-of-pocket medical expenses. There is nothing inevitable about poverty. We can make smart policy choices to build an economy that works for everyone in Miami-Dade — starting today.

To do this, we must reduce barriers to employment and provide more jobs — jobs that pay a living wage. We also need to strengthen the supports that keep families economically secure — such as childcare — so they don’t fall back into poverty.

Housing is a good place to start. The Miami metro area has the highest percentage of working households spending more than half of their income on housing costs — 41 percent — which is a severe cost burden. It’s time to pass fair-housing policies that will stabilize rents and increase the stock of mixed affordable housing that is available in communities near employment opportunities.

Getting around our region safely, efficiently and affordably is another serious hurdle. When the cost of transportation is combined with housing, our region is the most expensive place to live in the United States. We need to expand access to affordable and efficient transportation so that parents can get to their jobs reliably, which is good for them and their employers. I plan to convene a meeting of local mayors to address these and other important issues in the coming months.

This is only the beginning of an agenda for Miami-Dade that will grow opportunity in its economy. Together, we can end the tough choices facing low- and middle-income families in South Florida and build a new economy that works for everyone.

Daniella Levine Cava, elected this year, is the newest member of the Miami-Dade County Commission.

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