Two years ago, Lorraine Major was making about $9,000 a year as a school cafeteria worker.
Determined to raise her family's standard of living, the single mother of three got counseling and a small stipend to search for a new job. After a year as a co-teacher, she landed a job as a site director for the YMCA of St. Petersburg. Now she earns $32,000 a year, well above the poverty line.
"Things are going really well," said Major, 36. "I think me and a couple of other young ladies influenced some people. They saw that we were African-American women, single mothers, and if we could do it, they could, too."
Like Major, more of Tampa Bay's poor are sharing in America's ongoing rebound from the economic brink.
Overall poverty rates here have dropped to their lowest levels since the Great Recession rocked the country, with some racial groups making even more significant gains, according to Census Bureau data released this week.
African-Americans in Pinellas County have seen the most dramatic improvement. In 2014, one in three black residents were living in poverty. Last year, the number dropped to one in four. The poverty rate among Hillsborough County Hispanics dropped more than 3 percentage points, to 20.8 percent.
"The Tampa Bay area is following national trends, but has seen a much larger reduction than the rest of the U.S.," said University of South Florida economist Joshua Wilde. "We are rebounding much faster compared to the rest of the country."
But the gains have not been equally shared.
The poverty rate among Hillsborough's African-Americans has remained stagnant, hovering around 26 percent between 2010 and 2015. And in Pinellas, the Hispanic population living below poverty level increased by a percentage point in 2015.
Public officials and advocates for the poor say the mixed report is a sign of both progress and challenge, with plenty more work to do.
The data released this week shows the country's poverty rate saw its steepest decline since 1968. Across the board in the U.S., the percentage point declines in the poverty rate are the highest for African Americans, Hispanics and those without a high school diploma, Wilde said.
As the economy has strengthened, so have employment rates, experts said.
"A rising tide raises all ships, so the recovery of the U.S. economy over the past eight years or so was bound to improve matters for people at the top and bottom," USF economist Mike Loewy. "It just took a bit longer for the bottom to be pulled up."
From 2014 to 2015, the number of people living in poverty in Hillsborough and Pinellas dropped by about 22,300, to 335,361. Hillsborough's poverty rate fell by 1.1 percentage points, to 15.7 percent. The rate in Pinellas decreased 1.6 points, to 13.5 percent.
The poverty rates for whites fell by about three quarters of a point in Hillsborough and by one-fifth of a point in Pinellas.
The larger fluctuations among minorities could largely be due to their small population sizes, said USF's Wilde.
In Pinellas, for example, the African-American population grew the least of all ethnic groups between 2014 and 2015 but saw its population in poverty decrease the most, from 32 percent to 25 percent. Pinellas Hispanics and African-Americans in Pasco, the two groups that saw poverty rates increase, make up less than 10 percent of their counties' populations.
Still, the steep drop in poverty among African-Americans in Pinellas is an encouraging sign, said County Commissioner Ken Welch.
"The community focus on poverty and the fact that it has to be a multi-faceted approach in addressing it, to me, is the main thing," Welch said. "We're making progress, but there's a long way to go."
During and after the recession, many people went back to school to earn degrees from technical school or two and four year colleges, said Gypsy Gallardo, a member of the 2020 Task Force, which aims to reduce poverty in St. Petersburg by 30 percent by the 2020 census. At the same time, groups like the Pinellas Opportunity Council and the Pinellas County Urban League, the non-profit organization that helped Lorraine Major start her new job, ramped up their efforts.
"These two approaches are finally bearing fruit and are picking up momentum," Gallardo said.
The city of St. Petersburg recently launched an ambitious redevelopment plan for southern St. Petersburg, and the county has a similar effort in Lealman, an impoverished, unincorporated area west of the city. Welch also expects the county's new court diversion program, scheduled to begin in October, will prevent many low-level adult offenders from being saddled with arrest records that would hinder their chances of finding housing and jobs.
The slight uptick in poverty rates among Hispanics in Pinellas shows a need for those agencies to continue educating the public, said Myriam Irizarry, a board member of the InterCultural Advocacy Institute, a Pinellas-based nonprofit that provides resources to Hispanic residents.
One of the challenges Hispanics face is transportation. Many can't find employment far away from their homes because they walk to work, said Irizarry, who is also a Pinellas County judge.
"It's just disheartening that it's increasing," she said. "We need to make sure that the community knows what the services are that are available to them."
Sandra Lyth, chief executive officer of the InterCultural Advocacy Institute, said many Hispanic families are typically single-parent households and are prone to discrimination. But some factors are helping the poverty rate, Lyth added. The county's new wage-theft ordinance will ensure that workers get paid and the nonprofit is also offering services to help students excel in school while keeping parents involved.
"I think that's the future of this community," she said. "It's the kids."
The discrepancy in the progress for blacks on opposite sides of the bay shows that Hillsborough and Tampa have lagged behind, said Susan Greenbaum, a professor emerita of anthropology at the University of South Florida who has studied poverty in the city.
"It appears that the measures they've been taking in Pinellas for some time are more effective at actually solving the problem than what we're doing here in Tampa, which seems to be denying there's a real problem," Greenbaum said.
Tampa City Councilman Frank Reddick said the city, where a large number of the county's poor blacks lives, has several community redevelopment areas but has failed to invest enough in job training and financial incentives for businesses to set up shop in impoverished neighborhoods.
"There has been very little done to bring in businesses that create jobs and provide the opportunity to earn a decent living," Reddick said. "Affordable housing is being built but you don't see job creation and that's what's hindering a lot of these African-American communities."
Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller said the county is working hard to attract businesses manufacturing jobs and other types of businesses that can provide decent salaries for poor residents.
"We've made some progress," Miller said. "Have we made it fast enough? No, that's quite obvious. We still have a long way to go."
Numbers aside, there are some encouraging indicators from an on-the-ground perspective.
Both Pinellas County's Coalition for the Homeless and Hillsborough County's Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative reported smaller numbers of homeless people this year. In Hillsborough, the Salvation Army Tampa Area Command has empty beds in its emergency shelter.
It's becoming easier to find permanent housing, said Salvation Army area commander Capt. Andy Miller. The cost of living in the Tampa area is at the lowest it's been since 2001, according to the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation.
"These numbers are a good sign that the non-profit community has been serving people well," Capt. Miller said. "It's very encouraging."
Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.