Under the Table and Off the Books

If you're desperate for work, if you must see a doctor, if you need shelter, Miami's shadow economy will provide

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Classic Miami scene: Low-cost vendors ply city streets just as they did back home
Steve Satterwhite
Classic Miami scene: Low-cost vendors ply city streets just as they did back home

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Many Miami neighborhoods more closely resemble the outskirts of a poverty-stricken Latin capital than a major American city. In Wynwood and Allapattah and Little Havana, flocks of chickens wander along littered streets, pecking at the dirt as colorfully painted fruit-and-vegetable trucks pass by with their bags of tomatoes and red peppers for a dollar. Women pulling wire grocery carts walk the sidewalks to a nearby bodega. At intersections all across town flower vendors, soda hawkers, and balloon purveyors jockey for position, hoping for a sale. Willy is one of those.

He eyes the traffic. As the light turns amber and the cars slow, Willy lunges between bumpers, swinging bags of mamoncillos. He snakes between the Maxima and the Accord, the shiny Lexus and the beat-up Dodge truck, collecting two dollars for each mesh sack of the little green fruit, known as Cuban lychee. He's a mirage. His image shimmers in the heat of the engines and the glaring sun. As traffic moves forward he scurries back to the sidewalk, his knees brushing grilles and taillights on the way. Hustling to a hedge where he keeps his mamoncillos in the shade, he grabs more bags and stands under the awning of a hardware store. Once again Willy eyes the traffic, waiting to jump back into the crush of busy Flagler Street.

"This is difficult work," the 54-year-old Peruvian says in Spanish, perspiration dripping from his brow and soaking his shirt. He closes his eyes and exhales slowly. "This is not an easy way to earn money."

Only the desperate dodge traffic for a living. Willy is a desperate man. He's a mechanic with an injured back from a fall in Peru, here illegally with his wife, who cleans houses. His right arm is in a pressure cast after emergency surgery for a severe case of tendonitis. Willy doesn't have insurance, so he pays his hospital bill piecemeal in cash -- but he doesn't have a lot of cash. He's a poor man, and that's not going to change no matter how many sacks of mamoncillos he slings. He's got a boss who gives him fruit to sell in the morning and then takes 70 percent at the end of the day. Willy keeps 60 cents for each two-dollar bag, a dispiriting economic equation that forces him into traffic six days a week. On the seventh day he goes to church and rests. "I'm very tired," he says with stoic understatement.

Willy is part of the invisible army conscripted into an informal economy where people scratch out a living in America's poorest city. He eludes census takers, tax collectors, the government in general. And he helps make Miami unique. Most big cities have networks of illegal aliens working under-the-table jobs, but Miami's well-entrenched culture of exiles, plus the fact that it is the only large city where the so-called minority population outnumbers the majority, has created a self-sustaining shadow world. Princeton sociologist Alejandro Portes, who has extensively studied Miami, calls it the "enclave economy," a self-reproducing, self-reliant system fueled by an endless supply of new immigrants. This informal shadow economy exists in addition to Miami's vibrant illegal economy, the drug smuggling and weapons smuggling and money laundering that thrives here because Miami is a port city with very close ties to the Caribbean and Latin America.

Portes would argue that Miami's infamous claim to poverty fame is not really its fault, or at least not entirely the result of civic mismanagement. "Miami is caught in the influx of immigration," notes Portes, who co-authored with FIU professor Alex Stepick City on the Edge: The Transformation of Miami. "It is a gateway city, and the income levels of that population tend to be lower." Many of Miami's immigrants come from "economies of scarcity," as Portes puts it. They've learned in their homelands how to survive with meager resources, and they use those skills here as well. Whether they be campesinos or office workers, new arrivals commonly end up taking low-paying transition jobs as a matter of sheer survival -- maids, taxi drivers, kitchen workers. That population tends to support Miami's informal economy. "In part the immigrants need it and in part the immigrants are used to doing things this way," Portes says. (Certainly those coming from Cuba in the past decade are accustomed to relying on black markets for food and other necessities.) Informal economies allow the poor to make ends meet, whether they're in Caracas, Havana, or Miami.

Another factor contributing to Miami's flourishing informal economy is the lack of an industrial sector, which would otherwise provide a base of stable, decent-paying jobs. "The economy of Miami does not offer enough opportunities for formal employment because it's not an industrial economy; it's a service economy," Portes says. "So these people invent their own employment."

With relative ease, in Miami you can live entirely off the books if you choose. You can have an unskilled job like Willy's, unreported and untaxed. With that scant income you can rent any number of modest apartments in places like Little Havana and Little Haiti, where single-family homes are routinely and illegally subdivided into three, four, or sometimes as many as twelve family units. You can clothe yourself in drastically reduced name-brand apparel sold from private homes where you need a trustworthy referral before you can enter. And you can get your health care from a profusion of backroom doctors and dentists.

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