Florida unemployment is nearing an all-time low, and Gov. Rick Scott says the state is “on a roll” with 1.5 million jobs created since he took office.
But that didn’t stop Angela Edwards-Luckett from coming to the Capitol recently as part of a protest by labor groups and others critical of the lack of good-paying jobs in the state.
“It’s a struggle to survive out there,” said Edwards-Luckett, 51, of Clearwater, whose biggest source of income is a $10,000-a-year part-time instructor’s job at St. Petersburg College.
Edwards-Luckett, who teaches world religion, said she picks up more money doing ministerial work. But in Pinellas County, she said, many jobs pay only $8.50 or $9.50 an hour.
“If the jobs are there, they really don’t pay what you need, or what you’d call a living wage,” she said.
Almost a decade since the Great Recession ended, Florida’s economic recovery remains uneven, data show. Scott can point to an abundance of new jobs — although research shows almost half are considered low-wage, paying $10 or less an hour. And close to half of Florida’s 67 counties still have not returned to the employment levels they had before the recession, which began in 2007 and officially ceased in June 2009.
Now, Florida’s economy is the back-beat to one of the state’s most important elections in years. Scott is campaigning for U.S. Senate, trying to unseat three-term incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson in one of the nation’s highest profile contests.
Scott’s singular focus as governor has been on jobs — and dragging Florida from the depths of the recession toward its current 3.8 percent unemployment rate, a level most economists consider full employment. Florida’s lowest rate ever was 3.1 percent, reached in March 2006.
For the governor, his work first triaging, then expanding the Florida economy is his “mission accomplished” moment and has emerged as the central item on his resume as a Senate candidate.
But the state’s economic revival can be viewed in vastly different ways, according to both experts and everyday Floridians.
Three million in poverty
While jobs seem plentiful and growing, almost three million Floridians live in poverty — earning less than $24,300 for a family of four. Poverty numbers peaked in 2012, but still have not fallen to pre-recession levels.
The number of struggling households is increasing as living costs outstrip what most jobs pay, data show.
The state’s economy will shape almost every race on the ballot this election year — especially the campaign to succeed Scott, where Democratic and Republican candidates divide over the scope of the state’s rebound from a jobless rate that hovered around 11 percent when the governor took office.
“Now we have job creation that is the envy of the nation,” said Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who is battling U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, a Palm Coast congressman, for the Republican nomination for governor in the Aug. 28 primary.
Among the five major Democrats running for governor, most point out that Florida’s recovery has been uneven.
Not everyone is doing well, said former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine.
“I think the governor likes to think that having a great economy is a state of Walmarts, McDonalds and Applebees, and everybody makes $8.25-an-hour,” Levine said. “My vision is a little different.”
“I kind of look at Massachusetts as more of a model, and that’s a state of General Electric, Lockheed, Apple, Amazon and eBay and great companies come to Florida and pay high-paying positions so these folks in our state don’t have to work two and three jobs,” he added.
The other Democratic candidates, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee, Palm Beach billionaire investor Jeff Greene, Orlando businessman Chris King and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum also are making Florida’s economic divide a big part of their campaigns.
Florida’s wages typically are below the U.S. average. The latest figures available show that the state’s wages in 2016 were 87 percent that of the national average — a level that grew only slightly in the previous two years.
Palm Beach County had the state’s highest annual salaries, an average $51,862, while rural Calhoun County had the worst, at $29,059, state and federal labor statistics show.
Meanwhile, 30 of Florida’s 67 counties last year had job levels below that of 2007, when unemployment began to soar.
Many counties trailing in the jobs recovery are rural. But they also include Edwards-Luckett’s home Pinellas County, Manatee County, Brevard County on the Space Coast, tourism-heavy Okaloosa County on the Panhandle, and Putnam, Bradford and Union counties near Jacksonville. Leon County, where the state capital is located, also trails the jobs levels of a decade ago, partly stemming from Scott’s effort to shrink the size of state government.
Economists say the state’s robust job numbers are clustered in urban areas — Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville and Miami, and their suburbs.
Allison Lollie, 40, of Monticello, lost her printer’s job of 18 years when her company went out of business. Finding another job hasn’t been easy.
“You can look and there are pages and pages of jobs online. But not many pay what I need,” Lollie said.
How the governor sees it
Scott says that to gauge Florida’s current economy, analysts should look at a more recent starting point — when he was sworn in as governor.
“What people forget — because of how well we are doing now — is how bad we were doing eight years ago,” Scott said recently.
In the years leading up to Scott’s election, Florida lost 832,000 jobs, home prices dropped 42 percent, state debt climbed, and almost half the state’s homes were under water, with mortgages topping market value.
Scott said he came into office with a simple goal: “It was that I’m going to make sure we have the best economic environment for business in the world.” He worked toward that goal with help from a Republican-controlled Legislature that reduced business taxes, regulations, unemployment coverage and growth management laws.
“He’s delivered on all three points of his agenda: jobs, jobs and jobs,” said Bill Herrle, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business-Florida, whose national political committee recently endorsed Scott.
But analysis by Florida International University of the state’s job creation efforts raises questions about the quality of these new positions.
Comparing the state’s pre-recession labor statistics with those of 2016, FIU found that 44.5 percent of new jobs were considered low-wage, with hourly pay of $10 or less. The analysis also showed that the percentage of Floridians in low-wage jobs had actually climbed since the recession — to where it now represents one in five people in the workforce.
Herrle, though, said that Scott has set a tone which fueled confidence among companies in the state. A national survey of members by NFIB found that small business optimism in June was at its second highest rate in 45 years — levels which he said are reflected in Florida.
Companies are ready to expand, reduce debt and raise salaries, he said. And any reservations about the extent of the state’s recovery stem mainly from what Herrle called a hangover effect from Florida’s economic swoon.
“We had eight-to-10 years of pent-up desires among Americans,” he said. “We’re finally getting to the point again where … they’re replacing that old refrigerator, they’re replacing that old car. That feeling is starting to move through the market.”
Melode Smelko, CEO of Altrua Global Services in Tallahassee, said that her company has taken off since the recession. She credits policy changes advanced by Scott for providing the spark.
Scott repeatedly pushed the Legislature to eliminate the state’s sales tax on manufacturing equipment purchases. And when they did, two years ago, it allowed companies like Smelko’s to expand and add good-paying jobs, she said. The company’s lowest pay is $13 an hour, she said.
A grimmer picture
But in findings released last year, the state United Way’s research on working Floridians is grimmer. It said that two-thirds of jobs in Florida pay less than $20-an-hour, with an overwhelming number drawing less than $15 hourly. Meanwhile, household living costs have climbed.
For a family of four to reach what United Way analysts call an average survival budget, they needed $53,856 annually, with an hourly wage nearing $27-an-hour.
The United Way study noted that Florida seniors lack enough income to support themselves. Minority households also do worse than the rest of the state’s residents.
Low-wage jobs are projected to grow faster than high-paying work over the next decade, with technology adding some jobs but eliminating others. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, job projections for Florida from 2015 to 2023 show that 82 percent of new jobs will pay less than $15 per hour.
While Scott runs as a job creator, most analysts say state leaders can only do so much to ignite a state’s economy. They can influence important policies. But some economists say Scott’s choice of who to favor has further polarized the state.
“Governors in their policies can say, ‘what can we do for workers?'” said Ali Bustamante, an economist at Loyola University-New Orleans who has studied working-class Florida. “Expand Medicaid coverage, pay higher-per-hour wages and promote efforts to lift workers and their families. Gov. Scott hasn’t done that.”
But Jerry Parrish, economist for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, said Scott “made Florida a place where people are comfortable investing private capital. They know that government is not going to get in their way.”
This article provided by NewsEdge.