Miami District Visit
Published October 1, 2017
After two stops in the Midwest, we decided to head to a very different corner of the country for the third location of our listening tour. What we found were the complex and vibrant communities of Florida’s 26th and 27th districts, where both the landscape and the recent political trends diverge starkly from our first two stops in Illinois’ 17th and Wisconsin’s 3rd districts. But when we put our ear to the ground, there were more similarities between these three disparate places than you might think.
South Florida can feel like a different country—like a part of the Spanish Caribbean. But it is distinctly American in its struggles and successes. Florida’s 26th and 27th districts border each other in Miami-Dade County. The 27th is entirely in Dade, while the 26th also takes in all of Monroe County, including the Florida Keys. The cores of both are urban and Hispanic. Both have a Cuban-American plurality.
Politically, there was a big gap between presidential and down-ticket voting that appears to be in part driven by an evolving Cuban-American population, including a younger generation largely born in the United States. Hillary Clinton won both of these districts in 2016 by double digits. But so did two House Republicans, both of whom are Cuban-American. And these two districts gave the largest victories to Clinton of any that are currently represented by a Republican in Congress.
Together, these districts encompass not only city but farmland, nature reserves, and small rural towns that feel largely isolated from the city. While there is obvious wealth and high educational attainment in the affluent coastal area, we also saw large swaths of population with limited opportunities. Still, when you add it all together, the full picture was a sense of economic dynamism, possibility, and optimism about the future.
Here is a summary of what we heard.
“A dynamic and cosmopolitan place”
No matter who we spoke to in our two weeks in South Florida, we heard a common refrain that seemed to echo directly from our visit to Moline, Illinois: it’s a great place to live. One recent transplant to the Florida Keys nicely summed it up: “It’s stunningly beautiful here. I have ‘wow’ moments every day.” And that sentiment pervaded in both the city and countryside
Another point of common pride was captured by a man we spoke to downtown. “Other places learn about diversity in textbooks, we see it,” he said. An older man expressed it this way:
“I’ve lived here for 20 years and I’ve had family here since 1926. Miami has changed tremendously. It’s a wonderful cultural mix—that’s scared a lot of white people, they left and left the good ones [white people].”
Not only did many residents talk about the diversity of South Florida as a prime benefit, they also held it out as something that distinguished their community and held it together. As one person said, “being from Miami is the glue. We’re forced to accept outsiders like no other place.” Another noted: “I grew up surrounded by Hispanics; I’ve never felt like a minority. It’s not like that in other places. We’re very tolerant and open-minded.” Another resident summed it up: “It shows America in motion. A dynamic and cosmopolitan place.”
Although most people we interviewed saw South Florida’s diversity as a strength, there was a clear undercurrent of the challenges that come with it. Income inequality became a frequent (though not universal) refrain—marking a major difference with our two Midwestern visits, where the topic was almost completely absent. Its sudden emergence caused us to have a light-bulb moment: this was the first place we were visiting that had significant wealth. The experience of seeing mansions and yachts owned by the likes of Gloria Estefan, Matt Damon, and José Canseco adjacent to the poverty of Little Haiti and Liberty City is jarring. As one young law student described, “There are pocketed communities; the highways divide us.” The word “siloed” came up in almost every conversation.
A public defender explained his theory of the case:
“So much immigration happened so quickly over the past few decades. There were huge waves of discrimination, so there was no time for us to have a melting pot. The waves of immigration creates separate communities.”
These “pocketed” communities are exacerbated by a “terrible” public transportation system, which one interviewee described as “one county with 31 different cities.” One employer said this affected his workers, who must “be at work early and late…hours when the trains don’t run.”
Housing prices contribute to these problems. As one young person said, “People have to commute from where living is cheap—and people wonder why traffic is bad.” The jobs are far from where those who work there can afford to live, which means endless time spent commuting.
One person defined income inequality and divided communities as the area’s largest weakness. “We have pockets of wealth and poverty and that gap is our Achilles heel,” they said. “That gap must get smaller or there will be problems down the road.”
“Why don’t you just farm something else?”
While the focus on income inequality and extreme wealth diverged from what we had seen in our first and second district visits, the disruption caused by changes in the economy was consistent. We drove down to the Homestead area to see the “winter breadbasket of the Eastern U.S.” Agricultural leaders described the constant challenge of trying to keep their businesses afloat amid the shifting winds of trade and economic markets, as only some have managed to evolve with the times: “30 years ago we were a row crop organization, now we are dealing with NAFTA so we focus on nurseries... but we have 3rd generation farmers here, and a lot of the older generation is scared to move forward.” One leader described listening to a Congressional aide ask one of these farmers, “Why don’t you just farm something else?” He replied, “Because that’s all I know how to do.”
In other areas, the disruption of the new economy took different forms. For those in the Keys, it was AirBnB and other online vacation rentals, which avoid the county “bed tax” that hotels and other regulated accommodations must pay to fund infrastructure and capital improvements. One business leader complained, “I could go online and find probably 100 homes around here listed illegally.”
For others, it was that the new economy brought a new set of required skills. Leaders in South Florida’s higher education community emphasized that “The skills gap is very real in Miami, and it is preventing firms from reaching their potential and others from coming here.” They were clear that like many other places in the country, a high school diploma won’t allow you to sustain a family, and said that kids in South Florida believe that education is a ticket to a better life. One young woman summed it up well:
“That’s why my parents came to the US, for education. My siblings and myself all got educated and got productive jobs because my father wouldn’t accept anything else. I benefited from education, it opened up other avenues—financial, spiritual, social.”
Still, most people we spoke to saw hope in this area—even those who were more gloomy about the community’s prospects in general. One young man who works in the non-profit sector called himself “pessimistic,” but he made an exception: “Our higher learning institutions are really impressive. We’re democratizing higher education and making it more affordable.”
“Many times good things happen in spite of the political establishment.”
Few people we met had believed that local, state, or federal government was helping them navigate these economic changes. In fact, many spoke of experiences where government made it harder for them to succeed at a crucial moment.
One restaurant owner told an illustrative story. When the Affordable Care Act was passed, he made sure his employees were covered, saying he felt “a deep responsibility that my employees are paid a living wage.” Yet when he tried to relocate to a new space, the city delayed in approving the permits, and he had to walk away from the contract on the new space and let the landlord keep his deposit.
He was not alone in mentioning health care. A woman in the Keys explained, “The insurance I was able to find, my doctor is in Miami, have to drive 60 miles to see a doctor.” Another said, “Choices are narrowing, the system imposed on us is not working.”
The broken immigration system also came up in different ways throughout our South Florida travels. A young DACA student described the challenges of trying to access higher education without legal immigration status. A lawyer talked about the 300,000 people in the area who are eligible to petition for citizenship, but what used to cost $95 now costs $725. A farmer complained about the inflexibility of the H2A agricultural visa program, which has set dates no matter when the crops ripen and does not allow an employer to loan those workers to another farm in the meantime.
It seemed that quite a few of the people we met agreed with one community college leader, who articulated it this way: “Many times good things happen in spite of the political establishment.” They pointed especially to small businesses, saying they ”are the heroes—they give, give, give.”
One remedy for this disconnect between citizens and their government strongly echoed what we heard in both of our previous district visits: listening. Residents of South Florida sounded eerily like those of Moline, saying those who held political power did not understand their day-to-day lives or experiences.
One leader in the Caribbean community put it this way:
“I don’t think elected officials have a true sense of the black community in Miami…They think BET will reach all the black people in the country. It’s not true. There’s a richness to our community too, just like others. It matters for whether someone believes when you say ‘I see you.’ I’m willing to meet you there instead of waiting for you to come and knock on my door.”
“There are opportunities here.”
Though we’ve seen both optimism and pessimism in each of our visits, there was something special about the dynamics in South Florida that many chalked up to the constant influx of new people. A community college leader described the special sauce this way: “Miami is a wonderful, welcoming city, built by immigrants. Immigrants tend to be more optimistic, they see opportunity, see America as a place they can raise their family, have security and good jobs—things that are not available in other countries.”
That immigrant mentality seemed to give a constant lift to the conversations, even when we were talking about the challenges their communities faced. From a Dreamer who received legal status under President Obama’s DACA program: “I feel like I belong here. I want to prove people wrong. I have a goal in mind. I started when I was 21. I have a chip on my shoulder, a gravity; I want to get that 4.0 and get on the Dean’s List.”
For others, the key to the region’s opportunities, particularly in urban Miami, is that the city is evolving in real time and small enough to shape. “It’s exciting and empowering,” one millennial said. “I’m 33 years old and sitting here at this table with an opinion—this couldn’t happen in New York or other big cities. It’s exciting to be shaping what comes next.”
“South Florida could be an example to the rest of the world.”
With this sense of evolution came a feeling that Miami may be ahead of the curve, putting them on the cutting edge of solving problems that will vex our country over the long term.
For instance, parents and young people alike thought that their exposure to people of different backgrounds gave them an advantage in an increasingly connected world. One student described her high school experience this way: “I have to navigate between white and Latina cultures. That’s given me the ability to be empathetic to different plights. I’m grateful to have more than one homogenous culture.” A parent explained, “It’s such an advantage to raise kids that way. Miami is a great launching board.” A leader in the public school system expressed similar hope: “Miami can be a blueprint for communities evolving around the country. We’re on the forefront of these challenges. We have all the tools, we just need to make them work together.”
These sentiments of being on the forefront in the effort to solve big problems were also expressed around the environment and climate change. One local elected official in a rural part of South Florida said, “Nobody cares what’s causing it. I’ve seen the changes since my childhood: nine inches higher than it was in 1940.”
At one particularly memorable moment during our visit, sitting in a conference room overlooking both the sparkling water and the booming Brickell neighborhood of swanky high-rise apartments, a table of young professionals asked the young woman who was helping to cater our breakfast to sit down and join the conversation. Younger than most of the participants by at least a decade, she held her own in providing her perspective—shaped by her experience growing up in a poor, historically African-American neighborhood in the city of Miami.
“There are opportunities for entrepreneurship. But there are still not always the right opportunities or connections to make it big. Everyone in the community needs the opportunity to reach their potential, especially for entrepreneurship. Give them the tools.”
A young leader that we spoke to, a Haitian immigrant, summed up a common view on living in Miami: “There are a lot of opportunities but also challenges. The opportunities are greater.”
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