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Florida workforce loses ground since 2000, report says

Published Sep. 2, 2013

It has been worse than a lost decade for Florida, economically speaking.

Working families statewide have been losing ground since 2000 based on nearly every metric, according to an analysis being released today.

We're working fewer hours and being paid less. Housing prices and college tuition costs are both up sharply, while median income of Florida households has fallen at a greater pace than the rest of the country. Not only is unemployment higher than it was in 2000, but also a lower percentage of working-age Floridians are even looking for a job, masking the true number of jobless.

And poverty jumped nearly 50 percent in a four-year span.

Researchers from Florida International University said the decline in the standard of living not only harms social mobility, but also hampers the overall growth of the economy.

"Ultimately, the continuing decline in wages will mean lower consumer spending and therefore lower economic growth for Florida," they concluded.

Every Labor Day, FIU's Research Institute on Social & Economic Policy issues a "State of Working Florida" report.

Typically, it looks at current employment conditions and wage inequality by race, age and gender. This year's 10th edition focuses on how Floridians' standard of living has changed since the year 2000 based on four main areas: employment, income and wage inequality, living costs, and poverty.

"We really wanted to step back and look at what's really been going on for the greater part of the last 12 years," said report co-author Ali Bustamante.

Certainly, the Great Recession was central in ravaging people's pocketbooks and livelihood, particularly because Florida was one of the states hit hardest by the implosion of housing prices and related depression in the construction industry.

The report, however, suggests that the decline in the Florida's standard of living predates the recession and "the economy has been in flux during much of the past decade."

"A lot of the problems were just exacerbated by the recession," Bustamante said. "The recession basically made them worse."

One of the biggest surprises, he said, was to learn that the income inequality between the top and lowest rung of wage earners grew much faster in Florida than in the rest of the country.

Some other highlights — or rather, lowlights:

• Florida's real household median income fell $5,668, or 11.5 percent, between 2000 and 2011.

• Poverty increased by 47 percent statewide between 2007 and 2011. As of 2011, almost 23 percent of Floridians lived at or near poverty levels.

• Between 2000 and 2012, wages for the top 10 percent of earners grew by 13 percent while wages for the bottom 10 percent declined by a half percentage point.

• As of last year, Floridians owed on average $42,938 in debt that required monthly servicing (including mortgage, credit cards and student loans). That's up 24 percent from 2003.

• Consumer prices in the South, including Florida, rose nearly 34 percent between 2000 and 2012. In other words, an item that cost $1 in 2000 cost $1.34 in 2012.

• Housing prices rose by 32.4 percent between 2000 and 2011 although spending on housing only increased 7.5 percent.

• Transportation prices rose by nearly 44 percent, while spending on transportation fell by 14 percent.

Such sobering statistics mesh with other, more recent data.

Florida's unemployment is down from its recession-high of 11.4 percent in early 2010, but it has been stuck at 7.1 percent for three months and remains far removed from a rate under 6 percent that signifies a healthy economy.

According to census data released Thursday, Florida has the nation's second-highest rate of uninsured residents younger than 65 — a total of about 3.8 million people, or about 25 percent of the state's population. The uninsured include more than 500,000 younger than 19.

Bustamante blamed much of Florida's woes on the predominance of low-wage work here. Minimum-wage workers account for more than 5 percent of Florida's workforce on hourly wages, a percentage second only to Texas.

The FIU researchers said the effects are already evident in slow economic growth and persistently high unemployment rates "which are likely to continue into the future."

As a short-term solution, the researchers suggested a considerable increase in the minimum wage, coverage of paid sick leave and better enforcement of wage theft. That happens when employers underpay workers under the assumption they can make it up through tips or other compensation.

Long-term, the report called for refocusing Florida's economy away from low-wage industries like tourism and retail and toward more "sustainable" industries like wholesale trade, health care and social assistance.

Bustamante said the recession showed the need for workforce transformation, proving that a college degree alone doesn't guarantee a solid job.

"There's a general inability now for most people to get good jobs. … Education hasn't made you impervious," Bustamante said. "No one has been safe from this except really the income earners at the very top."

Jeff Harrington can be reached at jharrington@tampabay.com.

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