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Living On The Edge: 2.5 Million Floridians Are Teetering On The Poverty Line

Hundreds of people arrive for a mobile food distribution site.
Margie Menzel
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The number of Floridians living in poverty has fallen since the Great Recession. But it’s still higher than the national average. According to federal data 14 percent of Floridians had incomes below the poverty line. The figure is closer to 12.3 percent nationally. WFSU is taking a look what it means to live below the state poverty line, or in some cases, right on the edge of it.

Hundreds of people arrive for a mobile food distribution site.
Credit Margie Menzel / WFSU News
The Florida Channel
Hundreds of people arrive for a mobile food distribution site.

Every Tuesday, hundreds of people begin lining up early on an empty lot in Tallahassee’s “South City”. It’s just a mile down the street from gleaming state capital buildings, but here, instead of the city’s famed live oaks, the lot is mostly barren, with just sprigs of grass and weeds, and on rainy days, puddles of mud.

The delivery truck pulls up, unloading pallets and boxes of food. Some days, a mobile health truck comes from one of the local community clinics. On the other side of town, in the city’s increasingly crowded Kearney Center homeless shelter, is Angel. He didn’t give his last name, but says he’s a veteran, and a Syracuse university graduate who has been in and out of the shelter three times, because of problems finding housing he can afford.

“Out there in the streets, there’s a lot of things going on," he says. "You sleep in the bushes, you going to have problems. These people here, they open their hand to help us get on our feet. And I appreciate that.”    

The average price of a two-bedroom rental in Tallahassee is $1,000 a month.

In May, Tampa area Taco Bell employee Lillian Hall, was drawn to the capitol to rally for raising the minimum wage as part of the Poor People’s Campaign.

“I am a single parent of four children," says Hall. "And it's very hard for me to live off my wages at Taco Bell. I’ve been there two years, and I’m still at $8.74. Do I feed my children, feed myself…it’s not enough.”   

The dictionary defines poverty as the state of being extremely poor. The federal government defines poverty as earning less than $25,000 a year for a family of four .

“Rates of hunger and poverty declined more significantly in Florida than the nation over the last year—that’s the good news,' says Bread for the World President David Beckmann. "The bad news is those rates…are still higher in Florida than in the nation as a whole.”   

Federal data show single mom’s and African Americans are more likely to live in poverty.  Twenty percent of the state’s children, about 840,000 of them, are impoverished. And nearly 12 percent of households don’t have enough to eat. Healthcare, housing and childcare costs are factors, as are stagnant wages in a state where the minimum wage is $8.25 an hour. But Beckmann believes the greatest contributor to poverty is Apathy.

“To me the real problem is, lack of collective give a damn. There are other things that are more important to us.”   

Beckmann says raising the minimum wage could help, and there are other solutions that don’t cost money, like increasing tax credits for low-income people, along with immigration and criminal justice reform.

“That would help us reduce, in a responsible way, to have fewer people in prison, and then also have better programs and policies so that when people come out of prison they can go back into the job market.”

Even as 2.5 million Floridians still struggle, the problem is nowhere near where it was during the 1960’s when about a quarter of Americans lived in poverty. Great Society Programs like Medicaid, Medicare, and welfare contributed to significant declines in the poverty rate, and for the most part—it has stayed down, dropping to 11 percent in 2000, spiking to nearly 16 percent during the Great Recession and dropping again to where it sits today. 

Copyright 2020 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.