Growing the Middle Class: Connecting All Miami-Dade County Residents to Economic Opportunity

June 1, 2004

Miami-Dade—with its famed beaches, weather, and culture—attracts over 10 million overnight visitors per year. The setting for numerous movies and TV shows, the region is a magnet for the rich and famous, and conventioneers and vacationers follow.

But Miami has another identity. Beyond the spotlights, the fun in the sun, and the world of international business lie some sobering statistics about what the plurality of people in Miami-Dade County and Miami City experience. Miami’s split personality—its wide gap between rich and poor—points to an underlying problem. The region, and in particular the city, has a small middle class. Miami-Dade is failing to retain residents, including immigrants, who have successfully moved up the income ladder, and build its middle class from within. Addressing this failure may be the single most critical intervention the region can take to improve its future.

Miami-Dade’s Income Statistics Are Troubling

  • Miami-Dade’s incomes are low and poverty is high. Miami-Dade County’s median household income is $35,966, far below the national median income of $41,994. The city of Miami’s median household income is even lower at $23,483.

  • Miami’s middle class is small. While 20 percent of the nation’s households make between $34,000 and $51,000, only 15 percent of Miami’s households are in that income bracket.

  • Blacks and Hispanics are less likely to be middle class than whites. In Miami-Dade County, the white median household income is at least $20,000 more than the black, Puerto Rican, Nicaraguan, and Haitian median household income.

Several Factors Contribute to Miami’s Small Middle Class

Miami faces several challenges that contribute to the region’s troubling income trends and inhibit its ability to retain and build the middle class.

  • The level of educational attainment in the region is low. Only 22 percent of the county’s adult population has at least a bachelor’s degree. And only 16 percent of the city of Miami’s adult population has at least a bachelor’s.

  • The regional economy is a low-wage economy. Most jobs in Miami-Dade are in industry sectors, such as service and retail, paying lower wages. Additionally, wages, regardless of industry sector or occupation type, are lower in Miami-Dade than elsewhere.

  • Miami-Dade is exporting middle-class residents. During the 1990s, almost 160,000 more people left Miami-Dade than moved in from other parts of the country, many moving to neighboring Broward County. While the group of Dade-to-Broward movers was racially diverse, they were primarily middle class.

Low-Income Residents Face Additional Challenges that Hinder Their Ability to Join the Middle Class

  • Miami’s decentralized growth patterns isolate low-income residents from opportunity.

  • Basic necessities consume a large portion of poor residents’ income.

  • Limited use of mainstream financial institutions and government support programs impedes the wealth-building capacity of low-income households.

Miami Can Build a Different Future by Investing in Growing the Middle Class

The region should focus on five policy interventions that help grow the middle class:

  • Develop an educated, skilled workforce
  • Improve access to quality jobs
  • Make work pay
  • Help families build assets
  • Build quality neighborhoods

Miami-Dade is a vibrant place—a large urban market, an international gateway, a tourist destination, and an engine for entrepreneurial activity. By formulating strategies to grow and retain the middle class Miami-Dade will not only be better able to connect all its residents to economic prosperity, but it will realize a new level of regional competitiveness.