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Economist delves into the numbers behind state’s post-Covid recovery

Brian Hartz

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Jerry Parrish is the Florida Chamber Foundation’s chief economist and director of research.

St. Petersburg College’s Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions on Friday welcomed Jerry Parrish, the Florida Chamber Foundation’s chief economist and director of research, for a presentation about Florida’s economy amid the Covid-19 crisis and the state’s long-term economic outlook.

ISPS is a think tank that facilitates non-partisan, in-depth discussions about social, political and economic issues, and its selection of Parrish for this week’s event was well timed. The economist recently made headlines when he very publicly refuted a March 11 Wall Street Journal article that, according to his letter to the editor, “suggests that almost as many people are leaving Florida as are moving in. That’s simply not true.” Wells Fargo economist Mark Vitner, as reported by the Catalyst, also took issue with the newspaper’s conclusions about Florida.

Citing U.S. Census Bureau data, Parrish pointed out that Florida’s net migration rose by 1.12 percent in 2020, adding that, at current rates, the Sunshine State’s population will swell by 4 million by 2030. “Florida is a large net gainer of population in both interstate and international moves every year,” he wrote.

Friday’s wide-ranging discussion touched a number of topics and issues, but most of them were related, of course, to the Covid-19 crisis and its effects on Florida’s economy. Parrish said the Florida Chamber of Commerce recently ended its daily tracking of Covid-related hospitalizations, a move that he said should be taken as a positive sign.

“I’m always happy when a data set is retired, because there is a reason for it,” he said. “My own local hospital up in Leon County, where I’m from, announced last week that they had exactly zero cases of people with Covid. It looks like we’ve got Covid under control.”

Parrish, citing the nonpartisan nature of his position, declined to ruminate on the political optics of Florida’s relatively rapid economic reopening last year, but he said, on balance, the government’s response seems to have worked.

“I’m not political at all,” he said. “I’ll tell you both the good and the bad — that’s what economists do. But in this case, it looks like Florida has actually done substantially better [than some other states]. And it’s because we’ve kept our economy open.”

Tourism and hospitality jobs have been slow to come back, Parrish said, but the state posted a net gain of high-wage jobs during the pandemic — possibly the result of businesses and professionals leaving high-tax, highly regulated states for Florida — while nationwide, high-wage jobs have declined by 1.7 percent.

When it comes to unemployment, Parrish said, Pinellas County wasn’t among the worst-hit counties in Florida — those would be Lake, Miami-Dade, Orange and Osceola — but it still suffered five-digit job losses. From January 2020 to January, the number of jobs declined by 10,161, or -2.1 percent. Statewide during that time, 571,800 people lost their jobs.

That’s a big, hard-to-stomach number, but Parrish said it’s important to put recent statistics in an historical context.

“Since 2015, Florida was creating more than one out of every 11 jobs,” he said. “That’s a big deal. Florida is about 5 percent of the U.S. economy. One out of 20 would be above average. And the good news is that’s going to help us. That momentum we had before Covid will help us return to those kinds of job numbers in the future.”

However, one area in which Florida struggles mightily is childhood poverty, Parrish pointed out. But it’s not just the number of children living in poverty, he added; it’s the high concentration of impoverished households in a few areas of the state.

“If we took all the 829,342 kids living in poverty in Florida, more than half of them live in just 150 ZIP codes,” he said. “Three of those ZIP codes are in southern Pinellas County.”

Parrish said the Florida Chamber has taken up the eradication of childhood poverty as a pet cause, of sorts, and he would like to see business leaders across the state talking about it more and acknowledging it as a very real threat to the economy. At 20.1 percent, the state’s childhood poverty rate was on the decline in 2019, the last year that data was available, but that still means that one out of five children lacks basic resources — an unacceptably high number.

“I’ve started talking about this to every business group that we talk to, and people say, ‘Oh, you know, maybe you shouldn’t say that stuff,’” Parrish said. “We’re not trying to shame people. We’re trying to let them know where the issues are.”

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