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Tallahassee Leads The Nation In Income Gap

United Way

Like all cities, Tallahassee has its haves and have nots. But when it comes to the gap between the two, there’s evidence Tallahassee has the widest in the nation.

On a scorching summer day, Tallahassee single mother Joslin Bellamy sits under a whirring fan in her subsidized apartment and describes why she doesn’t give in to the temptation to give up.

“As long as I can keep a phone, my phone on, then I can make contacts, to try,  because there are agencies, there are people out there.”

One of Bellamy’s sons is non-verbal and communicates with an electronic device. Another has ADHD. Then there’s the oldest, an A-student in engineering and a member of Air Force ROTC. And the youngest is an 8-year-old exceptional student reading at a sixth-grade level.   

Bellamy gets little child support. A $733 monthly government check gets budgeted to the penny. Rent alone swallows up $189, another $589 in monthly food stamps feeds five.

“I shop weekly. I do wait for sales days. Usually Wednesdays starts sale days at Winn Dixie.”

There’s no car or cable TV. Bellamy walks to the store and hires a taxi to haul the groceries back. She's had part-time jobs cashiering at the mall or entering data for the IRS, but they fell through because the kids’ demands didn’t match work hours. So she volunteers on several community boards, including North Florida Legal Services. She cheerfully explains why.

“To make sure that, like myself, as a parent, a housing authority resident, and an advocate for my differently-abled children, it’s just important that our voices are heard,” she said.

The Martin Prosperity Institute, a division of the University of Toronto, studied income gaps in 350 metropolitan and medium sized cities in the United States. Tallahassee ranked 12th in the gap between the rich and the working poor. The rich were defined as household incomes of $200 or more.

The median income for a Tallahassee household is $40,000.

But when researchers adjusted for other factors, Tallahassee ranked 1st.

Jacob Reiter sees the have nots every day. He’s executive director of the city’s homeless shelter, where an average of 230 people a night come for a bed. Many of the clients are surprising.   

“A lot of people think that homelessness is just that person that they see standing in the road holding a sign. But really there’s a lot of people that we would never realize are homeless. They went from a full-time job to a part time job to a part time job or they unexpectedly lost a job.”

U.S. Army veteran Ron Parfitt wishes he went to the shelter a long time ago, a very long time ago. He lived in the woods behind the Buck Lake Wal-Mart for seven years. He shared the camp with a close friend he calls brother. The camp wasn’t as primitive as it sounds. There was a tent, a generator, a makeshift shower.  

“So I ran a hose form one of the water spigots into my camp. So we had running water daily and stuff like that. Me and my brother got food stamps.”

Parfitt just moved into his own place after applying for services at the Kearney Center, a one-stop refuge for social services and Reiter’s new homeless shelter.

And Bellamy lives regret free. She’s just two credits away from earning an AA degree in social work. She’d like the 1 percenters to pay more attention but she’s not bitter.

“They just don’t know my experience. I don’t know how to get them to know my experience and understand that. Because I’m so blindsided by everything, the negative that wants to be out there.”

A Miami native, former WFSU reporter Jim Ash is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, most of it in print. He has been a member of the Florida Capital Press Corps since 1992.