Florida’s economy is booming, but not for everybody. How will that affect the governor’s race?

Families pick out donated food at the annual Farm Share in Pasco County. Photo by Kim DeFalco

On the campaign trail, Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis, outgoing Gov. Rick Scott, and their GOP allies paint a rosy picture of the state’s job growth and economy.

To hear them tell it, we Floridians are all doing a lot better than we were eight years ago. But that’s only for some people, particularly those who live in major cities and who are fortunate enough to sit at the top of the earnings pyramid.

The truth is that wages have barely moved at all for most Floridians. Between 2000 and 2017, the typical worker in Florida has gained just $1.27 in hourly wages, adjusted for inflation, according to the Florida International University’s Labor Center for Research and Studies.

And more than half of Florida’s 67 counties have fewer jobs than a decade ago, according to the pro-business Florida Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

“Not only has most of the employment growth been in low-wage jobs, the pay for those workers hasn’t risen as much as you would hope, given the increased demand for their services,” says David Denslow, a professor emeritus in economics at the University of Florida.

In the governor’s race, one key benchmark will be which candidate is able to lay out the better narrative about Florida’s economy, analysts say.

“DeSantis will run on the Rick Scott narrative interpreting unemployment numbers as providing a stable and viable economic future for Floridians. Gillum will run on the reality of people’s pocketbooks, which reflect that the median income has not had a meaningful increase in the last 20 years,” says Tara Newsome, a professor and director of the Center for Civic Learning & Community Engagement at St. Petersburg College.

University of Central Florida professor Sean Snaith says that Florida’s economy is “very strong” and that it’s being fueled by a mix of professional and business service sector jobs as well as many lower-skilled and lower-paying tourism jobs.

But he too acknowledges that Florida (and the nation) still hasn’t seen much in wage and salary growth, though he thinks that could change for the better soon.

Stagnant paychecks, lousy unemployment benefits

Republican National Committee spokesperson Taryn Fenske also cites a set of sterling economic statistics for Florida, such as 1.6 million new jobs created, the lowest unemployment rate in more than a decade, and record spending on education and infrastructure under Scott over the past eight years.

Talk like this may generate enthusiasm for some, but it’s not the reality for workers on the ground: Florida’s median wage (not to be confused with the minimum wage) was $15.77 an hour in 2016, according to Governing Magazine. That was the lowest median wage the state had experienced in 11 years.

One in every five workers made less than $10 an hour in 2016, according to a 2017 Florida International University’s Center for Labor Research Studies report. Gillum has called for raising Florida’s minimum wage from $8.25 to $15.00 an hour. DeSantis opposes the move, and the Republican-led Florida Legislature has shot down proposed minimum wage increases over the past four years.

“There’s a lot of folks being left out of the economy,” says Ali Bustamente, the author of the FIU Center for Labor Research Studies reports. He says that while $15 an hour living minimum wage is probably an unrealistic figure in some parts of the state, local officials should have the ability to raise it in their communities – something that’s not yet allowed under state law.

Rich Templin with the Florida AFL-CIO labor union said workers who don’t have a job right now are receiving fewer unemployment benefits than anywhere else in the country.

Florida ranks dead last in the nation when it comes to the percentage of unemployed workers who received unemployment insurance in 2016, according to Talk Poverty, a website created by the liberal group Center for American Progress.

The study also ranked the Sunshine State 50th in the country when it comes to affordable housing, and 48th when it comes to the percentage of people who have health care benefits.

The health insurance problem

Another national study ranks Florida 49th in the nation when it comes to the number of people who lack access to health insurance.

While Gillum has joined the parade of Democrats nationally running on a Medicare-for-all platform, the reality is that any such policy change would have to come from Washington, not Tallahassee.

On the state level, Florida lawmakers could improve the picture for low-wage workers by expanding Medicaid so that lower-cost health care is available to more people. Gillum advocates Medicaid expansion but DeSantis (and the GOP-led Legislature) oppose the idea.

“If we had expanded Medicaid we would have created a minimum of 40,000 jobs in the health care sector which would have been higher paying jobs, and brought billions of dollars in the state,” says the AFL-CIO’s Templin.

On health care, St. Petersburg College professor Newsome says that Republicans have co-opted the issue in recent years by convincing voters that the federal Affordable Care Act needs to be repealed. That idea may be changing, she said. With Washington politicians saying that people with pre-existing conditions could once again find it hard to get health insurance if the Affordable Care Act went away, she says,  the issue now favors Democrats nationally and in Florida.

University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith says that health care continues to be a “mess” in Florida and the U.S., but says that while it’s uncertain where federal policy will go, the demand for health services in Florida will only continue to grow as the population continues to age.

A POLITICO/AARP poll taken in June showed that more than one-third of Florida voters over 50 years old say they worry about health care expenses more than any other issue.

“Health care and the economy are not easily separated in this election, as many Floridians face hard choices each month between paying for health care and putting food on their table,” says Newsome.

 

 

 

 

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