Prosperity One Step at a Time

A cleverly subversive scheme for creating something Miami desperately needs: a middle class

"Miami is not poor in a static way," observes Daniella Levine, one of the founders of the aspiring and grandly titled Greater Miami Prosperity Campaign. "It's poor in a progressive way, meaning we will continue to have more and more poor immigrants and low-wage workers."

According to Levine, executive director of the Human Services Coalition of Miami-Dade County, there is a two-part trick to getting ahead of the tide of impoverished humanity expected to flow into Miami: money and community engagement. "Money is the answer to poverty in one sense," she allows, "but awareness and attitude change are just as important."

Rounding up the money, while never easy, is the simplest part of the equation. Much more difficult is applying it effectively in a manner that fosters sustained business and political commitment. "We have a larger strategy for community change," Levine says. "It's not just connecting people to benefits. We're recruiting leaders from all levels to build a community and an economy that works for all, that will move Miami from number one in poverty to number one in community prosperity. In Miami it's not the average that's low. It's that the gap between the wealthy and the poor is so wide. This campaign is really about growing the middle class."

If this sounds a bit audacious, it's probably because the attention span of Miami's leaders can predictably be measured in nanoseconds. Nevertheless the prosperity campaign, which operates countywide but concentrates its efforts within Miami, has going for it both an unprecedented level of support from city government and a slightly subversive psychological element designed to win over the business community.

The first major effort of the campaign, launched in late 2002, was to target thousands of low-income families who are eligible for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit but don't claim it. (The tax credit, which is worth up to $4140, is a cash refund to low-income individuals and families -- for instance, a family of four earning less than $33,178 per year.) The Internal Revenue Service estimates that eligible poor residents in the City of Miami collectively leave unclaimed as much as $33 million each year. Usually that's because people are not aware of the credit. Poor immigrants living in Miami, especially in areas like Little Havana and Allapattah, tend to use neighborhood mom-and-pop businesses such as notaries for their official interactions with the government and its paperwork, including tax preparation. Helpful as they may be, notaries are not necessarily the most informed about tax laws.

In January and April of this year the city mailed an explanatory flyer to residents in low-income areas, and Mayor Manny Diaz participated in dozens of radio call-in shows, along with the IRS. Both the city and the Human Services Coalition set up phone banks that residents could call for information and directions to tax preparers who would assist them in applying for the credit. These phone lines received more than 50,000 calls in about three months. The coalition and others also contacted most of the major employers in the county, asking them to notify their employees of the tax credit.

The effort yielded impressive results. Levine says countywide there was a thirteen-percent increase in claims over the previous year, or about $62 million more in the hands of low-income people. City of Miami residents accounted for roughly $16.5 million of that increase. Javier Fernandez, the city's point man on poverty issues before recently being moved to a new position, says the numbers speak for themselves. "I worked the phone bank last year and we got 1800 calls the first day," he remembers. "It was amazing, the response we got. As policymakers it's hard to get your arms around the concept of poverty. But if there was any question before, [it's now clear] people are really struggling."

The tax-credit campaign was the "low-hanging fruit," admits Daniella Levine. It provided a relatively easy way to reach immigrants distrustful of government and reluctant to take handouts such as food stamps and free health insurance for their children. "Nobody likes to think of themselves as poor," Levine says. "With a tax refund, there's no stigma because it's very American to get a tax refund. And it was a door-opener to introduce other programs not being used." Plus it had the attraction of being a substantial amount of money. In fact, in some cases people could receive four years of the credit in a lump sum (three years of back tax credits), which is enough money for a down payment on a modest home.

The tax-credit campaign was also intended to act as an introduction to Miami's employers. One reason for the city's pennilessness is its heavy reliance on a service-based economy -- mostly tourism and public-sector jobs. Labor is the largest cost in both fields so there's a built-in impetus to keep wages low, an impetus facilitated by the fact that there are always plenty of new immigrants eager to find work. By encouraging employers to become involved in educating their employees about governmental services to which the employees are already entitled, Levine hopes to cultivate a more profound sense of civic responsibility, at least toward their own workers.

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