Americas
11:00 am
Fri September 27, 2013

How Miami (And The U.S.) Are Becoming Latin America

There's an old joke about Miami: Latin Americans love to visit the city because it's so close to the United States.

A homeless man in Miami.
Credit Surrender Ministries

Then there’s the chestnut about Miami being the capital of Latin America. Or, Miami is Latin America where the phones work. And so on.

The point is, Miami takes pride in saying, We are Latin America as much as we are America. And that’s a good thing.

Except when it’s not.

This month researchers released data that show how scary the gap between rich and poor has become in this country. The split between the wealthiest one percent – those who make $394,000 or more – and the bottom 99 percent is wider than it’s been in almost a century. Between 2009 and 2012 incomes for the 99 percent grew a miniscule 0.4 percent while for the 1 percent they shot up more than 31 percent.

How does Miami figure in this bad news? Badly. Miami-Dade has the second-highest level of inequality among all large U.S. counties. The distance between Fisher Island and Liberty City has never seemed greater.

So Miami – and increasingly the rest of the U.S. – are indeed a lot like Latin America these days, but hardly in ways we should be.

Stark Inequality

Latin America has long had some of the worst (if not the worst) wealth inequality of any region in the world. But over the past decade, Latin America has been adding people to the middle class, while the U.S. has been dismantling its middle class. Especially in places like Miami: Since 2008, Miami-Dade’s poverty rate has leapt from 17.5 to 25 percent.

But that’s just the story’s first chapter. Miami also shares with Latin America too many of the traits that drive that inequality and poverty. Culprit No. 1: an over-reliance on low-wage industries like tourism.

How does Miami figure in this bad news? Badly. Miami-Dade has the second-highest level of inequality among all large U.S. counties. The distance between Fisher Island and Liberty City has never seemed greater.

There are two hard truths to swallow here. The first is that Miami is dead last among the largest U.S. metropolitan areas when it comes to workers trained for STEM-related (science, technology, engineering, math) fields – which is a big reason it’s next-to-dead-last in its ratio of high-tech companies to total workers.

Where else is that dearth of science education and tech industry a chronic millstone? Latin America, which accounts for a paltry three percent of the world’s R&D compared to 30 percent for Asia.

The second, says Florida International University business professor Jerry Haar, is that most of the immigration Miami receives emanates precisely from that tech-challenged region, especially the really tech-challenged Caribbean basin.

Haar is no xenophobe; he knows how valuable immigrants are to Miami’s growth. But he has a point. “The skill set coming here is more commensurate with basic service sectors,” he says, “when what we need is more programmers.”

Brain Drain

Haar warns that even Miami’s fledgling campaign to build a high-tech base raises red flags. “Rather than luring mother ships and later-stage companies like Dell in Austin, [Texas], or Microsoft in Washington [state],” he says, “we’re infatuated here with start-ups that often can’t sustain themselves and don’t produce many jobs.”

An aerial view of Fisher Island.
Credit Flickr

So given that dismal scenario, where does the talent that Miami does produce go? Not Miami. In fact, according to a 2011 study by Texas-based Avalanche Consulting, “Miami-Dade seems to be educating workers for other communities” – just as Latin America seems to be educating workers for other continents.

Here’s another dubious way in which Miami can say, We are Latin America: sub-par police pay. As WLRN’s Wilson Sayre reported last week, the $45,929 starting salary for a Miami cop is 20 percent below that of Fort Lauderdale.

Yet another: corruption. Three Miami-Dade mayors arrested within a month this past summer for alleged corruption or ethics charges. We’re Brazil without the bossa nova.

Did I mention rude and reckless driving? Enough.

Of course Miami should take pride in its Latin American bonds. We’re talking about the continent that gave us Gabriel García Márquez and Simón Bolívar and Celia Cruz.

But Miami – and the U.S. as a whole – need to think harder about our growing resemblance to the more dysfunctional face of developing regions like Latin America. It’s not a joke anymore.