In his presidential bid, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is sure to court Republican primary voters by touting the socially conservative policies he passed through the Legislature. But he also has another story to tell: His stewardship of Florida’s economy over the past four and a half years.
When we looked at Florida’s economic performance on DeSantis’ watch, we found that on most key metrics, DeSantis has something to crow about.
“Overall, I would say that Gov. DeSantis has been a good steward,” said William J. Luther, a Florida Atlantic University economist. “He inherited a well-performing state and has generally ensured that the state continues to work well for its residents.”
Here’s a closer look at DeSantis’ economic record.
A key turning point for DeSantis came during the coronavirus pandemic, when he decided that opening the state to economic activity was worth the health risk. Florida ended up roughly in the top one-third of states for COVID-19 death rates with 112 deaths per 100,000 residents in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the economic benefits were clear.
Consider employment trends. After the pandemic hit, it took the United States until February 2022 to reach the same level of employment as in January 2019, the month DeSantis took office. By contrast, Florida had returned to that benchmark nine months earlier, in June 2021.
And Florida’s post-pandemic employment rebound was broad-based. Construction jobs only dipped below their January 2019 level for one month. Manufacturing returned to its January 2019 level after 11 months.
Even leisure and hospitality jobs, which are both crucial to Florida’s economy and were especially hard hit by pandemic-era social distancing, beat the national average. The sector matched its January 2019 level by July 2022, a rebound the national leisure and hospitality sector didn’t experience until April 2023.
Florida’s unemployment rate has also been lower than the national rate for most of DeSantis’ tenure.
Under DeSantis, another key measure — gross domestic product, the sum total of all economic activity within the state — has thrived. Adjusted for inflation, GDP has risen faster in Florida than it has for the nation as a whole. In fact, over time, Florida has been pulling away from the nation.
“Keeping businesses open and allowing people to work was certainly helpful,” said Randall G. Holcombe, a Florida State University economist.
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Population growth and in-migration
DeSantis often touts the population flow into Florida from other states as a major plus for the state.
“People are voting with their feet, and it’s not because Florida is a welfare magnet,” Holcombe said.
DeSantis has often singled out two solidly Democratic states — California and New York — as foils. He has a point: Both California and New York have experienced slow or even negative population growth in recent years. Florida, by contrast, has continued its rapid growth during DeSantis’ tenure.
The pandemic appears to have accelerated this trend, said Hakan Yilmazkuday, a Florida International University economist.
“Florida experienced a mass influx of people during COVID-19, which definitely helped with its economy through higher demand,” Yilmazkuday said. (For example, about 29,000 Californians moved to Florida in the past two years, reports the Los Angeles Times, citing IRS data.) This influx stemmed partly from DeSantis’ decision to open the economy, but also from national trends toward remote working that enabled people to work while living in a warm-weather state like Florida, he said.
A big reason for Florida’s recent growth spurt has been its relatively low cost of housing. Florida’s housing prices are fairly similar to the national average, but they are well below those in both California and New York. This does not include insurance costs, which are rising, especially given climate threats and losses from hurricanes.
How much credit does DeSantis deserve for Florida’s strong economy?
Economists say DeSantis gets any economic credit for his decision to reopen Florida’s economy early. But Florida had a running start well before he took office.
Except for the Great Recession (roughly 2008 and 2009) and the early part of the pandemic (2020 and 2021) — two periods when the entire nation struggled economically — Florida has consistently seen gains in employment over the past three decades, under governors of both parties.
Much of this job growth stems from population growth. Still, keeping employment on pace with the state’s rapid expansion is an accomplishment.
“Gov. DeSantis came into office with an advantage, because Florida already was a low-tax state and a productive place to work and to start a business,” Holcombe said. “His policies have maintained that advantage.”
Where does Florida lag?
A notable economic shortcoming in Florida are wages. Since DeSantis took office, Florida has trailed the nation as a whole in hourly earnings.
Even adjusting for Florida’s lower tax burden, the state’s per capita disposable income — that is, its after-tax income per resident — trails the U.S. as a whole. And Florida even trails high-tax California and New York in this metric, although the blue states’ higher cost of living may cancel that advantage.