TAMPA — About 20 percent of Hillsborough County children live in poverty, according to U.S. Census data, roughly the same as the average across Florida.
But in parts of East Tampa, a predominantly Black neighborhood, almost one in every two children lives in a home where the family income does not cover the essentials, such as food, transportation and healthcare.
It’s a similar story in South St. Petersburg, another predominantly Black community, where about 40 percent of children live in poverty.
The numbers are not new. Millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent in recent decades to reduce poverty, with initiatives such as community redevelopment areas and early childhood education programs achieving marginal gains, at best.
But the death of George Floyd on May 25 and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests have made it tougher to ignore Black poverty. Community leaders are calling on those in local government to do more before another generation of Black children grows up with less opportunity than most of their white peers.
Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said impoverished Black communities are the result of decades of higher investment and prioritization of other neighborhoods. She compared the $35 million spent on Julian B. Lane Park in West Tampa to the $200,000 overhaul proposed for the Fair Oaks park and community center on 34th Street in East Tampa.
She is reminded of the city’s economic disparity every time she sees the Tampa skyline from her East Tampa home.
“There is no excuse for one half of the city to look like diamonds and pearls and the other to look like a bed of rocks,” Lewis said.
The latest sobering reminder of the economic disadvantage faced by Black children came earlier this month from the Florida Chamber Foundation, an offshoot of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
Using data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the group published childhood poverty maps for every ZIP code in Florida, hoping to raise the awareness of those who live close by.
“People are stunned,” said Jerry Parrish, chief economist and director of research for the foundation. “They can’t believe the ZIP code they live in has child poverty.”
A family of four with two children under the age of 18 is considered to be in poverty if the yearly household income is $24,600 or less. Statewide, roughly 21 percent of Florida children — some 870,505 kids — were living at or below that threshold, the study found.
That number is likely higher now. The survey predates the surge in unemployment that has resulted from the coronavirus pandemic.
Poverty can disadvantage a child for life. Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up poor are more likely to start school behind their peers in reading and vocabulary and often fail to catch up. They miss more days of school and are more likely to drop out, in some cases so they can work and help support their families.
A 2013 study by the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis used neuro-imaging to establish a link between poverty and the brain development of preschool children. Other long-established effects of poverty include poor diet and higher stress.
Those disadvantages continue after high school. Only 23 percent of children who lived in poverty for at least half of their childhood attended college by the time they were 25, and only 3 percent who were persistently poor completed college by that age, a 2015 study by the Urban Institute found.
The Chamber Foundation has set a target of reducing the number of Florida children living in poverty to fewer than 10 percent in the next 10 years. It has shared its report with state lawmakers and businesses and is asking those who share a ZIP code with pockets of poverty to support projects in their neighborhoods.
“It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s good for Florida,” Parrish said. “You get someone out of poverty and into a good job; it’s a win for Florida.”
On a recent Friday morning, Don Royal played with his 7-year-old son, Legend Royal, at Fair Oaks Park in Tampa. The pair laughed as he joined the boy on the climbing frame.
Royal has been unemployed since he lost his $10-an-hour job as a janitor at the Tampa Convention Center on March 5 because of the pandemic. He still hasn’t received an unemployment check, he said. His family is getting by with support from relatives and his wife’s salary from her office job.
One of the things he misses most is his son watching him put on his work boots. He no longer can promise that when he returns that evening, he might bring a treat or a toy.
He’s trying to find a job, but it’s been tough competing with every other person laid off during the pandemic.
“You’re doing the same things one million other people are doing,” he said.
A lifelong East Tampa resident, Royal said he has struggled for much of his life to make ends meet. His mom raised him and his four siblings by herself. She worked at a shrimp factory and as a janitor at a local school.
When Royal was 15, he attended school only part-time, so he could work and help her. Even then, he remembers that it was hard for minorities to get work.
He is skeptical when he hears about yet another program designed to raise up his neighborhood. Over the years, he’s seen them come and go.
“Wow, I’m 45, and I still don’t see the funding move right, even in the parks, the schools, the street lights and the trees on the side,” he said.
Before the pandemic, Royal had hoped that a $15 minimum wage would be instituted. He believes that is needed even more now.
“I hope everybody can get a step up,” he said.
Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature has opposed calls for a significant hike in the minimum wage. But a $15 minimum wage constitutional amendment will be on the ballot this November.
As affordable housing director for Hillsborough County, Cheryl Howell hears a lot of stories like Royal’s.
The rate of home ownership and wealth of Black families is comparatively lower than in the civil rights era of the 1960s, she said. She sees the same results of severe poverty in Black communities as she sees in poor rural areas.
“Housing conditions and living conditions are atrocious,” she said, adding that poor families contend with a lack of education, domestic violence, teen pregnancies and a higher rate of premature births.
Like most cities, Tampa has established community redevelopment areas to address blighted and impoverished neighborhoods. That worked in downtown Tampa and Channelside, where condo and apartment towers have sprung up. Progress has been slower in East Tampa, where the Chamber Foundation study reports the childhood poverty rate is as high as 51 percent in some ZIP codes.
Howell is encouraged by recent initiatives, such as the Hillsborough County commissioners’ decision to set aside $10 million a year for an affordable housing trust fund. There also are programs to rehabilitate poor housing and require county projects to hire local workers.
But more needs to be done to create a just system for people trying to better their lives, she said.
“We can’t expect people to function at a higher rate when they’re constantly traumatized,” Howell said. “That’s what abject poverty does to a family, does to an individual.”
The severe level of poverty in south St. Petersburg has long been on the radar of the city and local nonprofits.
When he was mayor in 2001, Rick Baker announced his vision of a “Seamless City” not marked by economic inequality. The Agenda 2020 initiative was launched in 2014 by local groups, including the Pinellas County Urban League, with the goal of reducing poverty by 30 percent by this year and by 80 percent by 2045.
And in 2015, St. Petersburg established a 7.5-square-mile community redevelopment area from 2nd Avenue North to 30th Avenue South between 4th Street South and 49th Street. Any new property taxes collected in that area must be spent on improving that community.
In 2019, those taxes totaled $4.4 million.
The funds typically are spent on infrastructure and helping local businesses. St. Petersburg decided that investing in people was equally important.
That has included funding for affordable housing and a program providing job training for ex-offenders that has placed nearly 300 in jobs, said Rick Smith, the city’s economic development manager.
Still, the area’s unemployment rate even before the pandemic was about 17 percent, roughly twice that of the rest of the city.
Recently, the city has used redevelopment funds in a more unorthodox way, investing in south St. Petersburg daycare providers.
“Most folks realize that a child’s progress is generally defined by their first few years in the education system,” Smith said.
But the approach has critics, including Maria Scruggs, who recently ended an almost five-year stint as president of the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP. She grew up in Midtown and is running for a Pinellas County Commission seat.
The city needs to do a better job of measuring whether the money it spends is making a difference, Scruggs said. She wants the city to pay for a strategic plan with clear goals and wants daycare centers receiving funding to be accredited and have better trained teachers.
“There has never been any real credible strategy to reduce or eradicate poverty in south St. Petersburg,” Scruggs said.
Smith said that only daycare centers licensed by the state receive funding. Centers are not required to obtain accreditation from national agencies.
The city has a redevelopment plan that was produced in 2015 for south St. Petersburg. But a process that was expected to take years must now also contend with the economic fallout of a pandemic.
“We didn’t see a lot of poverty reduction coming out of city public improvements like street-scaping so we wanted to make it more human capital, rather than bricks and mortar,” Smith said. “It takes decades to see progress.”
Five Tampa ZIP codes with the highest child poverty rates:
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