States Of The Economy
2:45 am
Fri December 30, 2011

Fla.'s Economic Pain, Anger Could Shape 2012 Race

Originally published on Fri December 30, 2011 6:07 am

Florida is once again poised to play an important role in selecting the president in 2012. Its Republican primary on Jan. 31 is the nation's fourth nominating contest.

But Florida is a very different state than it was four years ago. It is reeling from the housing collapse — more than 200,000 homes are facing foreclosure — and suffering from an unemployment rate well above the national average.

You can see the economic impact firsthand in places such as St. George's Episcopal Church in South Florida's Riviera Beach.

The church's soup kitchen is open five days a week for lunch and dinner. The program serves more than 2,000 meals a week — and the numbers are up from last year.

The Rev. Hap Lewis, who helps run the program, says that although unemployment numbers improved recently both nationally and in Florida, he sees no signs things are getting better in the faces of the people coming in.

"The main thing that we're seeing is a lot more families coming," Lewis says. "A lot of people have 31 days in every month and 21 days of money. So we find especially at the latter part of the month, our census rises."

Widespread Toll

Many of those who come to the soup kitchen have jobs. Lewis says that at lunchtime, whole crews come in, eager to save their lunch money.

But it's not just those who come for meals who have been hit by Florida's economic problems. Those serving the food have been affected as well. Many of them are retirees like Howard Evirs.

Evirs says the housing bust wiped out half the value of his main nest egg — his home.

"We had considered selling it just before the market broke," he says. "Then the value of the house went way down. So we made a decision — we'll stay in there till we die."

Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida, says unemployment affects the families of those who have lost their jobs, but the housing debacle goes much further. It has taken a personal financial toll on nearly every homeowner in the state.

"The amount of wealth that was lost to the median family here in Florida is really staggering," he says. "If the median family of four in Florida were to save at twice the national savings rate, it would take something like 18 years to save back what they lost in home equity."

Lagging Behind

A University of Florida consumer confidence survey finds a deep streak of pessimism in the state. An increasing number of people think things will be worse with their personal finances and the nation's economy a year from now.

Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, says that in the past, buoyed by growth, Florida has bounced back quickly from economic downturns.

"This time, we're lagging way behind the rest of the country. And Floridians are simply not used to that," she says. "And as a consequence, they're very angry about what's happening in Washington. And they are paying a lot of attention to the economy and jobs."

That concern is particularly deep, MacManus notes, among Florida's many senior citizens. About 1 in 5 Floridians is older than 65, and seniors have a high turnout rate for elections.

Who's In Trouble?

What's not so clear is who gets the blame. President Obama's approval ratings are low in the state — 41 percent, according to Quinnipiac University. But those of Republican Gov. Rick Scott are even lower, at 33 percent.

When pollsters ask Floridians whom they blame for the nation's poor economic conditions, MacManus says they are almost equally divided between Republicans and Democrats.

"That's why some political analysts are projecting that this could be yet another wave election — where people in office that ... are known to be incumbents could be in trouble," she says.

Four years ago, something else was different for Republicans campaigning in Florida. Unlike now, the state's governor in 2007 was actually popular. As a presidential candidate, Republican Sen. John McCain scored a coup when he secured the endorsement of then-Gov. Charlie Crist. It helped him win Florida and seal up the Republican nomination.

This time, while Florida Republican leaders are aligning with presidential candidates, Scott, the current governor, is on the sidelines. And given his unpopularity, that's where he's likely to remain when Republican candidates ramp up their Florida campaigns in January.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The first three to vote are Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Soon afterward, on the last day of January, Florida votes, a huge state that once again moved its primary to an earlier date to increase its influence. That means candidates will contend for votes in the state where the economy is very different than it was four years ago. NPR's Greg Allen has the last of our reports on the economic picture in the early primary states.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: There are statistics that detail the sad state of Florida's economy: unemployment well above the national average, more than 200,000 homes facing foreclosure. And there are places where you can see the economic impact firsthand, such as in South Florida at St. George's, an Episcopal church in Riviera Beach.

BOB GOLD: Hey, welcome to St. George's on meatloaf night. Can I get someone to say grace for this table?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Lord, we thank you for this food. Let it nurture our bodies.

ALLEN: Bob Gold helps coordinate the church's soup kitchen, open five days a week, lunch and dinner. They serve more than 2,000 meals a week here, and their numbers are up from last year. Reverend Hap Lewis, who helps run the program, says although unemployment numbers improved recently, both nationally and in Florida, in the faces coming here, he sees no signs things are getting better.

HAP LEWIS: The main thing that we're seeing is a lot more families coming. A lot of people have 31 days in every month and 21 days of money. So we find, especially at the latter part of the month, our census rises.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ALLEN: After dinner, one of the soup kitchen regulars plays a hymn on the church's piano. Many of those who come here have jobs. Reverend Lewis says that at lunchtime, whole crews come in, eager to save their lunch money. But it's not just those who come for meals who've been hit by Florida's economic problems. They've also affected those serving the food, many of them are retirees like Howard Evirs. Evirs says the housing bust wiped out half the value of his main nest egg, his home.

HOWARD EVIRS: We had considered selling it just before the market broke, and then the value of the house went way down. So we made a decision, we'll stay in there till we die.

SEAN SNAITH: The amount of wealth that was lost to the median family here in Florida is really staggering.

ALLEN: Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida, says unemployment affects the families of those who've lost their jobs. The housing debacle goes much further. It's taken a personal financial toll on nearly every homeowner in the state.

SNAITH: If the median family of four in Florida were to save at twice the national savings rate, it would take something like 18 years to save back what they lost in home equity.

ALLEN: A consumer confidence survey done by the University of Florida finds a deep streak of pessimism. An increasing number think things will be worse with their personal finances and the nation's economy a year from now. Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, says that in the past, buoyed by growth, Florida has bounced back quickly from economic downturns.

SUSAN MCMANUS: This time, we're lagging way behind the rest of the country, and Floridians are simply not used to that. And as a consequence, they're very angry about what's happening in Washington. And they are paying a lot of attention to the economy and jobs.

ALLEN: That concern is especially deep, MacManus notes, among Florida's many senior citizens. About one in five Floridians is over age 65, and they have a high turnout rate. What's not so clear is who gets the blame. President Obama's approval ratings are low here: 41 percent, according to Quinnipiac University. But Florida Republican Governor Rick Scott's are even lower, at 33 percent. When pollsters ask Floridians whom they blame for the nation's poor economic conditions, MacManus says they're almost equally divided between Republicans and Democrats.

MCMANUS: And that's why some political analysts are projecting that this could be yet another wave election, where people in office that have an incumbent after their name, or known to be incumbents, could be in trouble.

ALLEN: Four years ago, something else was different for Republicans campaigning in Florida. Unlike now, the state's governor in 2007 was actually popular. John McCain scored a coup when he secured the endorsement of then-Governor Charlie Crist. It helped him win Florida and seal up the Republican nomination. This time, while Florida Republican leaders are aligning with presidential candidates, current Governor Rick Scott is on the sidelines. Given his unpopularity, that's where he's likely to remain when Republican candidates ramp up their Florida campaigns next month. Greg Allen, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.