We're Still Number One!

Last year about this time we published a special report on the City of Miami, which had recently earned the dubious distinction of being named America's poorest big city. The award was bestowed by the U.S. Census Bureau, which calculated that a greater percentage of Miami's residents were living in poverty than any other U.S. city with a population over 250,000.

Well aware of Miami's obsession with its image as a carefree tropical playground, we seized on this humiliating news as an opportunity to lift the veil and examine the city behind the façade. Our report was headlined "We're Number One!" The tone may have been sarcastic but the actual content was not. In fact the opening story revealed that the depth of poverty in Miami was much worse than census figures suggested.

If the federal government were to apply a realistic threshold for measuring the requirements of basic survival instead of the antiquated and inaccurate formula it's used for decades, the number of people deemed to be living in poverty would skyrocket. The multitudes of individuals and families eligible for public assistance would instantly overwhelm the meager resources available in Miami and across the nation. That, of course, would be a most unwelcome development for everyone in public life. And so reality is simply redefined.

This big lie is perpetuated by politicians, and is a reminder that they can't always be trusted to tell the truth, especially when the truth is unpleasant. With that in mind, we decided to revisit the territory we explored one year ago -- to check back with people who were struggling to survive, and to check up on the politicians who made promises to help them.

While "We're Number One!" was being circulated, Miami Mayor Manny Diaz held a press conference to announce a set of new antipoverty initiatives. (The timing was coincidental, I'm sure.) Diaz's public recognition of the city's disgrace was welcome, but his commitment to the fight immediately fell under suspicion. The mayor's plan essentially called for supporting the efforts of organizations already devoted to the cause. This inclination to let the private sector solve the city's social ills is consistent with the Diaz administration's overall approach to government: The more closely it resembles a profitable business, the better.

Businesses place a high premium on efficiency, which is a good thing when applied to Miami's notoriously inefficient bureaucracy. But business systems are inherently impatient, and have little tolerance for issues that don't lend themselves to expeditious analysis and resolution. Few puzzles could be more resistant to speedy solution than the stubborn poverty we see in Miami. It was generations in the making, and it persists in large part because its causes are so complex -- exactly the kind of intractable problem guaranteed to test the patience of a city manager like Joe Arriola, a successful businessman with a reputation for demanding instant results.

Small wonder, then, that Arriola and his boss Diaz are much more comfortable with the kind of change rapidly being brought about by residential and commercial developers, who are in a kind of feeding frenzy in downtown Miami. With no city master plan and few other regulations to stand in their way, builders are making quick work of old neighborhoods along the bay, tearing down modest low-rise apartments and single-family homes and replacing them with high-rise condominiums for the wealthy.

Overtown, the poorest area of the nation's poorest city, now beckons. Its proximity to the central business district and Biscayne Bay, plus the relatively cheap cost of land, make it a prime target for the type of gentrification that is a one-way street for current residents. As FIU professor Dario Moreno notes in "Metropolis, Heal Thyself," one of five articles in "We're Still Number One!" prepared by staff writer Rebecca Wakefield: "It's not so much that the poor people are getting better off, but that the poor people are moving out. The black neighborhoods are disappearing and moving to Broward."

An honorable moral compass would point Manny Diaz and other civic leaders in the direction of preserving and reinvigorating neighborhoods like Overtown for the benefit of the people who now live there. But that requires long-term engagement unlikely to yield short-term political benefits. Luxury condos, on the other hand, go up fast, pour money into city coffers, and attract residents who can afford to live in a carefree tropical playground.

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Jim Mullin
Contact: Jim Mullin