Reducing childhood poverty, increasing 3rd grade reading levels are key to Florida’s economic future

Florida Politics | By Christine Jordan Sexton | May 25, 2023

About 18% of the children in Florida are living in poverty

Education, housing, and health — and lack of access to it —are drivers of prosperity and the Florida Legislature tackled them all during the 2023 Session.

“From universal choice, to the ‘Live Local Act,’ to the expansion of KidCare, it was a monumental team effort and I’m proud of how our members came together, Republican and Democrats, to focus in on the most critical issues facing Florida’s families,” House Speaker Paul Renner said in a taped speech he made for The Florida Chamber Foundation’s 2023 Florida Prosperity & Economic Opportunity Solution Summit in Jacksonville.

“Our work is not done. We will continue to mission until every child in Florida has a path to prosperity.”

Renner reflected on the Legislature’s work in the spring by telling conference attendees that “as I look back at everything we accomplished, at times it felt like we passed more significant legislation each week than the entirety of other recent Sessions.”

Renner championed legislation (HB 1) that eliminated the financial eligibility restrictions for school vouchers and also eliminated a cap on the number of vouchers that can be awarded. Florida already had 1.3 million students using the vouchers before the bill was passed and signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Renner also pushed legislators to pass a bill (HB 121) that expands income eligibility for the Florida KidCare program, an optional Medicaid expansion for children who don’t qualify for the original Medicaid program. Unlike traditional Medicaid, which is free for enrollees, Florida KidCare enrollees are required to pay a small monthly premium.

The Legislature established the Florida KidCare program in 1998 and set the income eligibility level at 200% of the federal poverty level (FPL). The bill, which has yet to be sent to DeSantis for action, increased the income eligibility level to 300% of the FPL.

Increasing the availability of workforce housing was the priority for Senate President Kathleen Passidomo. Florida rents have been skyrocketing, rising 36% from 2020 to 2022, according to a Florida TaxWatch report. At the start of 2021, the median rent was $1,266 and rose 29% during the year to $1,635.

To abate the workforce housing problem, Passidomo developed legislation (SB 102) that requires local governments to accept multifamily housing developments in areas zoned for commercial or mixed-use if the development includes 40% of its units for affordable housing, defined as offering rents at or below 30% of the median income in the area, including utilities. DeSantis signed the bill into law March 30.

Renner’s remarks come as the Florida Chamber Foundation focuses its efforts on making Florida’s economy the 10th largest in the world by 2030. Currently, Florida’s economy is ranked No. 16.

“Our economy is bigger than Saudi Arabia. And next year, we’ll pass Mexico to be No. 15 in the world,” Florida Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Mark Wilson said. “We’re on our path to No. 10 by 2030, which is South Korea.”

To reach the goal, though, two things must occur, Wilson said.

He said that the number of children living in poverty must be reduced and the reading level for Florida’s children must improve.

Currently, about 18% of the children in the state, or 763,527 youngsters, are living in poverty. More than 387,000 of those children live in one of 150 different ZIP codes (Florida has 983 ZIP codes where people live).

The Florida Chamber Foundation’s goal is for less than 10% of Florida children living in poverty by 2030.

The second goal, Wilson said, is for 100% of the state’s third-grade school children to be reading at or above grade level.

Currently, just 53% of the state’s third-graders are reading at or above their grade level. Wilson said, adding that the information usually surprises people.

“Most people tell me 92%, 94%, 98%. Most people think it’s close to 100%,” Wilson said of reading level scores. “When I tell them that in a community like this, it’s less than 50%. The first thing that happens is people don’t believe it. Well, that can’t be true, because the school board would never allow that. That can’t be true, because the principals wouldn’t allow that. That couldn’t be true, because the parents wouldn’t allow that.”

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