#Study: Almost 48% of Keys population living at, or very near, poverty level - A screenshot of a cell phone - Percentage

While the Keys have 12 percent of its population living at poverty levels, the very disturbing truth is that almost another third of the population is one paycheck away from serious distress.

A recent study commissioned by United Way, revealed that 12 percent of islanders are existing at poverty levels, but another 36 percent fall into the “ALICE” category — Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. According to researchers, those are members of the community who are child care workers, mechanics, retail clerks and office assistants. The study measures everything from affordable housing to job opportunities to the cost of groceries.

The Keys’ results are part of a huge study that encompasses all of Florida and is the outgrowth of the original 2011 effort in New Jersey. This year, United Way commissioned statewide studies in five other states — California, Connecticut, Indiana, Michigan and New Jersey.

The average rate of struggling households (poverty and ALICE) in the state of Florida is estimated at 45 percent, putting the Keys about three percent higher. According to United Way of the Florida Keys President Margie Smith, this study is particularly useful in the Florida Keys because it’s broken out by area (see sidebar).

“The people in this study as hard as they are working, all it would take is one emergency – a serious illness, an expensive car repair, a damaging storm — for them to spiral into poverty,” she said. “The Keys are an odd combination of rich and poor and our island culture celebrates that it’s difficult to tell the difference between the two — for example, the millionaire wearing an old pair of shorts. But what we have is sort of this invisible class — between poverty and middle class. And it’s those people that are essential to making sure that our economy is vibrant.”

The study reveals that Monroe County has the highest “household survival budget” — $62,000 for a family of four; well above the national poverty level of $23,000 for the same family. That includes provisions for housing, food, transportation, child care and health care:

  • It’s no surprise to locals that Monroe County has the highest cost for housing in the state of Florida. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,400.
  • Food costs in Florida have risen 16 percent between the years of 2007 and 2012.
  • Public transportation is the cheapest option, but less than 5 percent of the population uses it except Miami-Dade which is 1 percent higher.
  • Child care cots average about $1,000 per month (for an infant and preschooler) across the state.
  • Health care costs in Florida have increased 14 percent for a family of four from 2007 to 2012.

These numbers, say people who have studied the report, indicate how the expenses are connected. Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers is particularly struck by the lack of affordable housing and how that’s affected by the cost of windstorm and flood insurance.

“This study makes the county’s work on affordable housing even more urgent, plus the work FIRM is doing on windstorm and flood insurance,” she said.

School board member John Dick said it explains the difficulty in recruiting new teachers and the lack of parent participation at Keys schools.

“This is what the school district has been facing since I have been involved. We have new teachers accept a position and then call back and say they can’t do it because they can’t find a place to live,” Dick said. “And if parents are trying to keep a roof over the family’s head, and food on the table, those two things are going to be more important than their child’s education. That’s just reality.”

Carruthers said there’s plenty to take away from the study.

“As a policy maker, I think we need to put more emphasis on affordable solutions to the cost of living increases here,” she said. “Can we find more alternative and public transportation options? Can we help people find financing to harden their homes and lower insurance costs? How do we continue to support those social programs that provide help?”

Editor Sara Matthis thinks community journalism is important, but not serious; likes small and weird children (she has two); prefers target practice with a zombie rat poster; and looks best with saltwater dreads. Occasionally she tortures herself with sprint-distance triathlons, but only if she has a good chance of beating her sister.

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