Tallahassee: A Tale of Two Cities

By Robert Kenon
Special to the Outlook

There are at least two separate Tallahassees. There is the Tallahassee described by Sue Dick,Chamber and Leon County Economic Development Council President in the Tallahassee Democrat article, “Chamber refutes report on city’s economic segregation,” dated February 26, 2015. According to Dick, “Everyone who has lived in Tallahassee or visited here considers it the capital of the quality of life, even as we continue to work on raising the fortunes of every segment of the community.”

Then there is the Tallahassee from which T-Pain the rapper derived his name (T for Tallahassee, pain caused by lack of opportunity). Visitors and members of the first Tallahassee mentioned overlook and pass by members of the other Tallahassee without even recognizing their existence.

The February article was written because an academic study, “Segregated City: The Geography of Economic Segregation in America’s Metros” by the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute, found that Tallahassee is the most economically segregated city in the United States. Instead of delving into the study and learning something about our community, denial as reflected in the title of the article discussing the study is the first response of the Chamber and our local newspaper.

The study, which looked at 350 metropolitan areas, found that many of the small and medium-sized cities with high levels of poverty segregation “suffer from the classic town-gown split” between university community members and the service workers in the rest of the city. In terms of segregation of the wealthy, defined as households with annual incomes of $200,000 or more ($232,000 is the threshold for the top 5 percent), Tallahassee ranked 12th. When the study uses an index to combine ranks of the poor and wealthy, that is when Tallahassee rises to the top as the most economically segregated city in the United States.

According to the United Way’s “ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) Study of Financial Hardship,” 21 percent of Leon County residents are below the poverty level and another 25 percent work but do not earn enough to afford basic needs. According to the US Census Bureau’s Quickfacts on Tallahassee for 2009-2013, 30.2 percent of residents are below the poverty level. This statistic does not include the working poor (ALICE) and proves the concentration of poverty inside the city — 30 percent of Tallahassee is below the poverty level and only 21 percent of Leon County residents meet this criteria.

Including the working poor, ALICE as defined by the United Way, half of our residents are POOR! Further, 65 percent of the black residents of Leon County are below the ALICE threshold. They do not earn enough to afford basic needs for themselves and their families. These poor people are not scattered throughout the county, they are economically segregated in the Frenchtown and Southside neighborhoods.

“The capital of the quality of life” does not acknowledge the extreme poverty located primarily in the Frenchtown and Southside neighborhoods. To get an idea, one has to get off the main streets. In Frenchtown, Brevard Street was a hub of the black business community during segregation, and looks pretty good today. To see the conditions where people live, you need to walk or drive along the streets without sidewalks – the “D” streets, Dade, Dent, Dewey, etc… South City looks even worse. Yes, we have ghettos in Tallahassee.
If we are going to improve our situation, we have to at first recognize and acknowledge it.

Hiring a PR agency to refute the evidence (as disclosed in the February article) is not helpful. The “Segregated City” study found that the wealth gap is widening. This is further supported by a 25-year study on the same set of families done by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University called “The Roots of the Widening Racial Wealth Gap: Explaining the BlackWhite Economic Divide.”

According to the study, the biggest drivers of the wealth gap are years of homeownership, unemployment, college education, and inheritance or pre-existing family wealth. According to a new Pew Research Center analysis of data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, the wealth of white households ($141,900) was 13 times the median wealth of black households ($11,000) in 2013, compared with eight times the wealth of black households in 2010. In Leon County, where 65 percent of blacks are below the ALICE threshold the disparity would be much larger.

According to the Brandeis study, equal achievements such as income gains, yield unequal wealth rewards for whites and African Americans. A portion of the answer to this riddle goes back to the wealth gap. Because the average African American has low net worth and limited access to capital, the first of any incremental increase in income goes toward establishing an emergency fund. The average white American would have a higher net worth and more familial financial support and would therefore be able to invest the incremental increase and profit more from it. In the Brandeis study, the white Americans were able to purchase a home eight years sooner than black Americans – again showing the wealth gap at work.

Traditional economic development approaches have not worked in black communities. The needs are different from those in the white community. Many of the poorest blacks reside within the Frenchtown/Southside Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA). The CRA, which is funded by the incremental increase in taxes collected within its boundary, currently specializes in working with developers on Mixed Use Residential properties, often referred to as gentrification by the locals. After 17 years of the 30-year project, residents are poorer than ever and the neighborhoods are still blighted. Perhaps these funds could be used more creatively to create jobs that pay a living wage, which would increase net worth, so people could afford to invest more in their property, thereby eliminating blight.

The Chamber enlisted Karen Cyphers, a public policy researcher, adjunct professor at Florida State University and Tallahassee-based Sachs Media Group’s research division vice president to refute the researchers’ report.