ST. PETERSBURG — African-American leaders on Tuesday celebrated new data they say showed the city-wide poverty rate among African-American residents fell to an all-time low last year.
The 2016 figures released this September by the U.S. Census Bureau put the black poverty rate in St. Petersburg at 17.6 percent last year. That meant about 10,000 black residents were below the poverty line, down from a rate of 34.9 percent, or about 20,000 people, in 2014, the high mark over the last 16 years. And down from 26.4 percent in 2015.
"We've got a lot of work to do still, but the indicators are at least moving in the right direction — and that's a good thing," said Mayor Rick Kriseman, who attended a news conference and dinner celebration at Mt. Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in Midtown.
Kriseman and community leaders attributed the improvement to three factors: a rebounding local job market, a surge in college and technical school enrollment and an increase in the number of poverty-reduction programs through the city's "2020 Plan" — a five-year initiative to reduce poverty by 30 percent in certain areas of south St. Petersburg by 2020.
The 2020 Plan has elevated 1,100 people above the poverty line, leaders said, and assisted another 800 low-income residents.
"While trends are important," Kriseman said, "the takeaway is this: real people are being lifted out of poverty."
The economic state of St. Petersburg's black community has been a huge issue in the city's mayoral contest between Kriseman and former Mayor Rick Baker.
In the past, Kriseman has used Census data to claim that conditions had improved for black residents in south St. Petersburg. However, that data represented all black residents, not just those who live in certain parts of the city. Furthermore it relied on data that was statistically unchanged from 2014 to 2015, due to the high margin of error.
In other words, there was no way to know for certain if the poverty rate went up or down. But Kriseman's remarks on Tuesday more accurately reflected what the data showed.
It is an issue the two Ricks have argued repeatedly about. In the past, Baker has accused Kriseman of trying to "rewrite history" when it comes which mayor has done more for Midtown and other black neighborhoods. Baker said he was the mayor who brought real change there by bringing in amenities such as the old Sweetbay grocery store, the Royal Theater and the James Weldon Johnson Community library.
"The poverty rates had been going like this," Baker said Tuesday, waving his hands up and down. "The people of Midtown, who voted for me by double digits in the last election, don't believe that it's changed."
Rev. Watson Haynes, president and chief executive of the Pinellas County Urban League, which offers job training, financial education and employments services and is part of the 2020 Plan, said Tuesday that St. Petersburg's strategy for reducing poverty could be a model for other cities.
"We're not counseling people out of poverty, we're coaching them out of poverty," he said, "so they can go home and coach their families out of poverty."
Reduction in poverty rates were also reflected in national and state numbers, too, the Census report showed. The poverty rate for African-Americans nationally decreased from 24.1 percent in 2015 to 22 percent in 2016. In the state of Florida, the poverty rate among African-Americans dropped from 25.2 percent in 2015, to 22.8 percent in 2016. Both those reductions were statistically significant.
Thabang Roberts, 37, said 2020 was a lifeline for her and her family. Thanks to the plan, she told the gathering, she enrolled in a Pinellas County Opportunity Counsel program called Staying Ahead — she already graduated from Getting Ahead — and has learned what it takes to overcome poverty.
The mother of three is now back in school studying cyber security.
"By participating in this class," she said behind the lectern, "my life has changed."