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Florida, Florida, Poverty

If you’ve seen any of our maps, you know Florida hasn’t been faring well on any metric ( employment, unemployment, poverty, lender-owned properties to name a few). But two swing districts are getting squeezed from all angles: Central Florida’s 8th and 24th Congressional Districts (see map with arrows; the two are in the middle of the state and eastward).

Not only do these districts encompass much of Orlando, its metropolitan sprawl, and its deteriorating economy, but they are at the tipping point of the congressional and campaign debate between the mounting urgency to get people back on their feet and back to work, and voters’ rage against the political machine. Both seats are currently held by freshmen Dems Alan Grayson (8th District) and Suzanne Kosmas (24th District), who won over these previously GOP districts in 2008.

Neither candidate has a lot to brag about. Grim statistics and the Great Recession have compromised any progress that either incumbent made--or more accurately voted for--during their terms. Even before Grayson and Kosmas took office in 2008, the housing crisis had already hammered Florida’s construction and real estate sectors--particularly in Orlando’s suburbs where much of their constituency reside. (Housing prices in metropolitan Orlando have dropped 44 percent since their peak in 2006.) It didn’t take long before job losses accelerated through other industries; in June of 2009, when the U.S. began its official “recovery,” Orlando’s unemployment rate was just beginning to climb past the 10 percent mark. By the end of that year, poverty in suburban Orange and Lake counties was increasing twice as fast as in the city of Orlando. Fast forward to 2010: More than one in ten of Orlando’s residents (urban and suburban alike) are still out of work.

As consequential as these stats are for the regional economy, they haven’t played a role the campaigns--and won’t as long as policy takes a backseat to politics. For Grayson and his Republican challenger Dan Webster in the west, and Kosmas and her Republican challenger Sandra Adams in the east--the 2010 elections are less about solutions to local problems and more about tapping into the frustration that communities are feeling in the abstract.

Take a stroll down the campaign trail. Between endorsements, attack ads, and claims of religious fundamentalism, you’d be hard pressed to find forward-looking policy prescriptions, let alone any mention of Orlando’s rapidly rising suburban poverty. Republicans Webster and Adams both support a hands-off approach that will leave it to employers to create jobs for the 135,000+ unemployed in the region. Their homepages (here and here if you’re curious) are principally dedicated to endorsements and defending themselves against attack ads. Meanwhile, incumbent Grayson mentions little more than his past success in securing federal funding for infrastructure. Fellow Democrat Kosmas wins out with two paragraphs on job creation and the mention of bringing “new, high-growth industries to Central Florida.”

But it’s not just Orlando whose economic future is in play in these elections; five other Florida metro areas outpaced the nation in the growth of poverty and unemployment between 2008 and 2009: Bradenton, Cape Coral, Jacksonville, and Miami. In that one year alone, Florida captured over 10 percent of the growth in the poor population of the largest 100 metropolitan areas combined.

When Floridians go to the polls next week, they better hope that their vote--red or blue, green, Crist or Tea--goes a long, long, way to deliver economic stability that materializes locally. Otherwise, they better start praying there’s a change of plans at NASA.