Sarasota has lots of claims to fame, from the Ringling Museum to the No. 1 beach in the country. And now we have another distinction: one of the nation’s biggest increases in poverty among children and young adults since the Great Recession began.
University of Michigan economist Don Grimes, who lives in Sarasota, recently looked at how the recession hit us, and what he saw, he says, is "horrific." While the number of jobs in the country declined by 5.4 percent, Sarasota lost 12.8 percent of its jobs. Because Sarasota has so many affluent seniors, our total poverty rate is still lower than the national rate—11.9 percent compared to 14.4 percent. But since so many of those lost jobs were in fields that typically employ younger workers—construction, retail services, restaurants—the rate of poverty among young adults and children skyrocketed, from 12.9 percent to 20.4 percent for children, and from 11.8 percent to 17.3 percent for young adults.
To understand the enormity of those numbers, consider how hard the recession hit millions of Americans; then consider that the total national increase in poverty during that time was 1.1 percent—much, much less than we saw. "We’ve gone from one child in eight living in poverty to one child in five—and virtually overnight," says Grimes. "I had no idea that things were that bad here."
As a result of his research, Grimes has decided to double his contribution this year to Season of Sharing, which raises funds every winter to prevent families from falling into homelessness. (Sarasota Magazine is one of the media partners in Season of Sharing, which was founded and is led by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota.)
One-third of all homeless families live in Florida—one of the devastating results of the housing collapse in our state—and 60 Minutes recently described them as dwelling in "a hidden America." Some families—the lucky ones—manage to squeeze into a homeless shelter (Sarasota has two, and they are always full now) or stay with friends or in cheap motels. Others camp in the woods, and quite a few are living—often along with their dogs and cats—in their cars. They try to live semi-normal lives during the day, getting the kids cleaned up for school at a gas station and spending time in the library or the parks. Then the long, dangerous night begins. Campgrounds can attract criminals; the police might notice a parked car and interrogate the parents, who live in fear that next they will lose their children.
At United Way 211 of Manasota, a call center that received 68,000 calls last year (up 47 percent since 2007), they hear "countless stories, one story at a time," says Ben Kunkel, director of operations. These days, many have the same tragic arc, as families slide from solvency into despair. It usually starts with a lost job; then the savings go; then the unemployment benefits. Relatives may help out, but they face their own financial woes. Eventually, the family can’t pay the rent, or the mortgage. Sickness, mental health issues, substance abuse, marital problems—all the woes that we all are subject to, and all intensified by poverty—can further worsen the situation.
Every dollar Season of Sharing collects goes to keep families from ever becoming homeless. But that’s getting harder. In the past, money for an electrical bill might have been enough. But now many families need multiple services; and jobs—often the real long-term solution—are in short supply. "More families are needing ongoing assistance—what used to be a speed bump has become a brick wall," says Kunkel.
And Grimes worries that’s not going to change any time soon. "Many of the jobs we had before the crash were artificially created by the debt bubble," he says. "Those jobs are not coming back. That’s a frightening situation—we could be stuck with high unemployment for five or 10 years."
Grimes hopes that Sarasota’s affluent seniors, who "weathered the recession pretty well," will "step up and support our younger people in these critical times." That support—from people of every age—could begin with a donation to Season of Sharing. "It has been a lifesaver," says United Way 211 director Jessica Ventimiglia, who credits the gratitude of her clients and the generosity of her neighbors for her continued optimism in the face of so much suffering. "There are so many good people here who give," she says. "They are holding this community up—God bless them all."