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In a good economy, report reveals grim news for Florida families

The United Way reports that almost half of state households struggle to afford basic needs.
Volunteer Stella Davis, 44, places canned goods and other food items into a bin at the Metropolitan Ministries Holiday Tent in Tampa before Thanksgiving.
Published Feb. 6

Spending is up and unemployment down, which means Florida's economic indicators have been heading the right way for several years.

But the untold story of the state's economic rebound is that it bypassed almost half of Florida households, which are still struggling to pay for basic needs, according to a new in-depth study of the working poor released Wednesday by the United Way.

That is also true of an 11-county region that includes Tampa Bay, where 43 percent of households struggle to afford child care, food, transportation, housing and health care — an increase of nearly 8 percent since 2010.

Most of that hardship is the result of stagnant wages, the report states, and an economy dominated by low-wage and entry-level jobs.

About 67 percent of the state's jobs pay less than $20 an hour, equivalent to a salary of about $42,000. Yet, the "household survival" budget for a family of four runs to almost $60,000 a year, the study states.

"That is not a $20 an hour job; that is multiple jobs," said Doug Griesenauer, the director of financial stability initiatives for United Way Suncoast. "Those high paying jobs are not very prevalent."

The report is intended to highlight the plight of working families who live above the federal poverty line but find it difficult to afford basic necessities. That leaves them at financial risk when unexpected expenses like car repairs or medical bills arrive.

Some 47 percent of Floridians don't have money set aside to cover expenses for three months in case of an emergency, a number that was highlighted during the recent federal government shutdown when workers were forced to rely on food banks while they were no longer receiving paychecks.

"They're having to choose which bill to pay and saving doesn't become an option," Griesenauer said. "If people can't afford to live here, our economic growth can't continue."

Across Florida, about 14 percent of families live below the federal poverty level, which in 2016 was $11,800 for an individual and $22,300 for a family of four.

The report found plenty of hardship above that line, too.

The survival budget for a household based on the cost of items like rent, child care, food and transportation comes out to $20,712 for a single adult and $55,164 for two adults with two young children.

About 47 percent of Florida families earn less.

Clearwater resident Victoria Townsend-Brooks, 50, is one of those finding it tough.

She retired after working for 32 years as a Greyhound bus driver. Her family of three still had income from her husband, Jeffery Brooks, who works as a cook at Nature's Food Patch.

But Townsend-Brooks contracted lupus and needed five surgeries. Her husband developed high blood pressure and also needed medical treatment.

The medical bills forced her back to work, a mostly part-time job shopping and delivering groceries for others. On a good week, she makes about $500 for more than 40 hours of work.

The reports she constantly hears about Florida's booming economy seem like they're describing another country.

"It's not getting better," she said. "Every year, your rent is going up. The cost of medicine is high, but your wages are at a standstill."

Her job means the family needs a second car but struggles to afford servicing them. Medical bills seems to arrive almost every week.

"I can send them a little, but I can't pay the full amount," she said. "If I give them the $900 they're asking for right now then my family is going to go without food or we won't have gas to get to work."

The failure of wages to keep pace with the increasing costs of basic necessities, up about 20 percent since 2010, is identified as a particular concern for working families.

For instance, the number of retail sales jobs in Florida has risen almost 30 percent since 2010 yet the median hourly pay has fallen by 2 percent, to only $10.33 an hour, according to data compiled the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of customer representative jobs has risen by almost 50 percent over the same period. The median hourly rate in that field has risen only 3 percent, to $14.06.

Townsend-Brooks, her daughter, Sierra Miller, and leaders of United Way traveled to Tallahassee and met with state lawmakers Wednesday to call on them to provide more help for working families.

The United Way has produced the study, known as the "Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed," or ALICE report, every two years since 2012 to highlight the difficulties faced by families.

It uses data from the Census and federal agencies compiled through 2016.

"The ALICE Reports shows us that, although economic recovery is happening in our community, it's not happening equally for everyone," United Way Suncoast CEO Suzanne McCormick said in a statement. "When nearly half of households in our community are on the financial edge, it's clear we have to work together to address these big issues around housing, transportation and skilled employment opportunities."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.

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