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Tampa Bay ranks dead last in median household income among biggest metros

Published Sep. 19, 2014

Median household income in Tampa Bay has sunk lower than it was in 2010, the early days of recovery from the Great Recession, cementing the bay area's dead-last ranking in income among the country's 25 biggest metro areas.

Things aren't much better across the state. Miami, the only other Florida city on the list, comes in at second lowest. Tampa Bay and Miami are the only two metro areas with median household income languishing below $50,000. (Median income means half are above that and half below.)

"I'm not surprised," said Mark Vitner, a senior economist with Wells Fargo, who has tracked Florida since the 1980s. "There's no getting around that a lot of the jobs we've added in the past five years are in leisure/hospitality and in the retail trade, and they tend to pay lower wages."

Those sobering statistics on household income — in tandem with other economic and demographic data released by the U.S. Census Bureau this week — paint a grim portrait: Despite a significant drop in unemployment, working families across Tampa Bay are still being squeezed.

Based on the latest census figures, the bay area's poverty rate hasn't budged since 2010, while the percentage of residents receiving food stamps has risen.

"You're not seeing a full recovery because the wage growth isn't there," said Scott Brown, chief economist for Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg. A widening income gap pushing down many in the middle class means "people are running in place just to stay where they are in their standard of living," he said.

Both Vitner and Brown cited the housing collapse and subsequent mixed recovery — in which prices of high-end homes have risen much stronger than those of modest homes — as a key reason for Tampa Bay's fiscal funk. Before the recession, many families counted on their home as not only their biggest asset but a retirement nest egg. That's not the case anymore.

Tampa Bay's wages have always been on the low side, particularly when compared with the biggest metros in the country. A year ago, the area also had the lowest household income among the top 25.

On the plus side, Tampa Bay has been much more affordable than other major cities. Tampa and Jacksonville have the lowest cost of living of any metro areas along the eastern seaboard, Vitner noted. Being affordable, however, also means Tampa is viewed as an attractive option for back-office or call center jobs, which tend to pay less.

Since the end of the recession, "I don't think anything has substantially changed in terms of the kinds of jobs Florida attracts," University of Florida economist Chris McCarty said. "I can't really point to any big initiatives that will attract high-paying jobs. There's no dramatic shift."

McCarty, who gauges the state's consumer confidence every month, said many Floridians are still wary of spending as they fret about their finances.

"Typically five years out from a recession, we would be a point lower (in unemployment) and consumer confidence would be 10 points higher," he said.

Tampa Bay's brightest economic sign has been its stunning drop in unemployment, which has tumbled from a peak of 12.5 percent in January 2010 to 6.8 percent as of July. There is cause for concern in that, too, though: Florida's unemployment rate has remained largely static throughout the year.

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Plus, the drop in unemployment masks a persistent problem within the workforce: a glut of people who work part time because they're unable to find full-time jobs and those who have temporarily given up looking out of discouragement.

The unemployment rate for August comes out Friday.

Contact Jeff Harrington at (813) 226-3434 or Follow @JeffMHarrington.


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