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Trigaux: Beneath veneer of our economic rebound, distressed communities are stalled

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Published Sep. 30, 2017

Perhaps rosy statements of our economic rebound in the United States, Florida and Tampa Bay — from low unemployment and record stock markets to rising GDP growth — should be delivered more like those drug ads pitched on TV. They all briefly promise blissful relief but must end the ads with an asterisk detailing their lengthy and often scary side effects.

Here's how the economic asterisk might read:

*Any national, state or metro-wide reports of economic rebound should be considered glossy overviews based on broad averages and median figures that can mask the currently uneven and often sharp gains and losses that regions, towns, communities and individuals may enjoy — or suffer.

That's the dose-of-reality disclosure found in a new report from the Economic Innovation Group called the "2017 Distressed Communities Index." The annual analysis drills down to the level of ZIP codes — thousands of them — across the United States. It reveals in great detail where prosperous communities are and where still too many distressed communities remain.

So when we hear the national jobless rate is 4.4 percent or both Florida and Tampa Bay's rates are even lower at 4 percent, just remember these figures flatten out the highs and lows of unemployment.

The case of Haves vs. Have-Nots is not a new insight. Comparing how they are doing by ZIP code does add fresh insight into how economic prosperity has become concentrated in elite ZIP codes — nationwide as well as in the four-county area (Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando) that makes up Tampa Bay.

Economic stability outside those communities is weaker and actually deteriorating among the hardest hit ZIP codes.

"Years into a steady economic expansion, it is all too easy to look at a low unemployment rate or record stock market gains and conclude that the tide is rising everywhere," says the Index report. "Hidden beneath the national numbers is a deeply fragmented landscape of economic well-being — one in which far too many communities are being left behind."

The report color codes every ZIP code in the nation based on economic vitality. Deep blue areas are the most prosperous. As economic distress increases in each ZIP code, the colors change to lighter blues, then to tan and orange and finally to light red and the worst: dark red.

Nationally, prosperous dark blue ZIP codes are clustered in the upper Midwest and along the upper East Coast, as well as places known as tech hubs like Utah, Colorado and Washington state. ZIP codes clustered in deeper reds are most common in the Appalachian states and the Southeast, stretching through rural Texas and parts of the Southwest.

Among some of the more troubling findings in this year's index:

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• New jobs are clustered in the economy's better-off places, leaving one of every four new jobs for the bottom 60 percent of ZIP codes.

• Most of the distressed communities have seen no net gains in employment and new businesses being established since 2000. More than half have seen net losses on both fronts.

• Half of adults living in distressed ZIP codes try to find jobs in the modern economy armed with only a high school education at best.

• The healthier the economy, the healthier the person. People in distressed communities die five years earlier, according to the index .

Among more than 80 ZIP codes in the four-county Tampa Bay area, 13 ZIP codes are identified as prosperous deep blue, with the greatest concentration found in northern Hillsborough and southern Pasco counties.

Metro-wide, only four ZIP codes are deep red, making them among the most distressed. Two are in Pasco County and two are in Hillsborough County — including the 33613 ZIP code in the university area near USF. It's the most distressed of the four, according to the index, and is an area well known for its troubled economy. Its poverty rate tops 37 percent while its median income is barely half that at the national level. More than a third of the adults there are not working.

That's why an organization — originally called the Tampa Innovation Alliance and rebranded this year as Innovation Place — is trying to rejuvenate parts of that area. Led by former county Commissioner Mark Sharpe, the group is backed by area heavyweights that include USF and others. It remains a long slog.

One of the major messages in the Distressed Communities Index is that many residents of deep-red ZIP codes lack the education and skill sets to get ahead in a 21st century knowledge economy.

"Today's jobs are going almost exclusively to people with education beyond high school, and those jobs are going to thriving communities," said John Lettieri, co-founder of the Economic Innovation Group, the Washington, D.C.-based research firm that produced the index. "It's a self-reinforcing cycle."

Heads up, Florida. Fast-growing Western cities and tech hubs dominate the list of the most prosperous cities in the country. Of the nation's 100 largest cities, the 10 identified by this index as most prosperous are based in Texas or states farther west. The 10 smaller cities deemed most prosperous can be found in states from Texas in the South up the spine of the Rocky Mountains and Midwest to Minnesota.

The good news, if we can call it that, for Florida is that none of the 10 largest or 10 mid-sized cities tagged as most distressed in the nation are in the Sunshine State.

That's something. But it isn't enough.

The distressed index report concludes by asking a good question: Is it fair to wonder whether a national recovery that excludes tens of millions of Americans and thousands of communities deserves to be called a recovery at all?

Contact Robert Trigaux at Follow @venturetampabay.