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Key West poverty

Key West poverty: Almost half can’t make ends meet

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

10/12/2023

Let’s go out on a limb: Ninety percent of y’all reading this sentence never went hungry for very long. If you did it was because you chose to do so.

I’m not talking about tummy rumbles while flipping through a menu on Duval Street. I’m talking about worrying whether you can buy milk for a bowl of cereal. Or fretting because the choice today is paying the rent or fixing the stove top to cook a box of mac-and-cheese and that’s if one can stretch the milk far enough to do both cereal and macs. I’m talking about Key West poverty.

No worries. I’m not calling you out. I’m one of you, too. And, in the spirit of somebody’s-got-to-do-something, I’m going to ask that we be that somebody. More on that later.

Almost half of our Monroe County and Key West households can’t make ends meet. Forty three percent of Monroe County and Key West’s working households do not make enough to meet survival-level expenses. They are mostly households with children or people over 65. They are the most vulnerable, the least likely to be able to fend for themselves.

There are worse counties in Florida. Up there mid-state between Sarasota and Okeechobee in Desoto County, 65 percent can’t successfully keep body and soul together. But Key West and Monroe County don’t get a pass simply because we can play “what about.”

They are the households in the annual ALICE report of the United Way of Collier and the Keys. That’s economist-speak to describe the working poor: Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. They “are unable to afford the basics of housing, child care, food, transportation, health care and technology. These workers often struggle to keep their own households from financial ruin, while keeping our local communities running.”

Key West poverty

Key West poverty: Almost half may go hungry tonight

In Monroe County, the United Way calculates that a household of four (two adults, one infant and one preschooler) needs an annual household survival income of $84,432 simply to pay for the essentials needed to live and work in today’s world. A single adult needs $30,216. If you’re making less than $17 an hour, you’re probably below that survival level.

And we are talking survival here. We’re not talking about choosing between who has the best happy hour discount or saving up for an inexpensive vacation. We’re talking about whether leaving a 10-year-old home alone to babysit the toddler counts as adequate daycare since we had to pick up a third part-time job. We’re talking about whether we get groceries this week because we use a wheelchair, can’t afford a ride share or delivery service, can’t manage the senior transportation systems and have no one to help.

These are the barely hanging on working poor on an island where it sometimes seems the hardest choice we make is who’s offering a locals’ discount on an $18 martini. These are families invisible to our visitors though they stand next to their tables taking food orders, handling the checkout at the grocery stores or weighing the anchor on back country fishing trips and water sports fun near the reef. These are small-business owners; midlevel white collar workers; an EMT, nurse or school teacher. These are our neighbors.

It’s darn near impossible to see these invisible working poor on an island where the shirt-shorts-flip-flops uniform is shared and where there’s no stereotypical “poor” neighborhood. But the poor are here, working seven days a week to make my life and yours a whole lot better.

I have no magic wand to fix this. For sure, though, nothing gets better if I am blind to the family and community devastation that results when almost half our neighbors are below the household survival point.

I can do this: For the next three months, match your food-beverage-reservation-fee for every happy hour, wine tasting, theater evening, art gallery opening or Fantasy Fest outing with a donation to a local charity that takes care of our invisible working poor. Places like Star of the Sea Foundation, Cooking With Love, Samuel’s House or Wesley House. The absolute best list is managed by the United Way of Collier and the Keys:

If you join me, it might cost you all the way to a couple hundred bucks, depending how much of a social butterfly you are. You’ll do the right thing; you’ll make a difference. And if you’re reading this, I’ll go back out on that limb and suggest you — I — can afford it.

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Avatar of Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

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