Harwood Innovators Lab Experience

I had the privilege of participating in last week’s Harwood Public Innovator’s Lab, sponsored and hosted by The Patterson Foundation.   Over 70 participants from 4 counties (Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and DeSoto) gathered to learn the Harwood principles of community engagement.  In his book “The Work of Hope”, Rich Harwood discusses the need for people to work for the common good.  People from disparate backgrounds can cross existing boundaries and walls to come together for the good of the community.  Over the next year, teams of public innovators who “graduated” from the Harwood Labs last week will spread out into their communities to ascertain what citizens want and need in order to live in a community where they can thrive.  I am a member of the Sarasota County Library System Team.  Libraries hold a unique position in the community in that they are generally seen as safe and unbiased common places where people from all walks of life are welcome.  It could easily be argued that the libraries are the most diverse places in Sarasota County.

For the “Aspirations to Actions” project, which will emerge from the Harwood Lab training, the libraries can take advantage of their position in the community to facilitate people coming together and forging real connections with one another.  We can explore new ways of connecting people in different venues or through different media.  The libraries can be a vehicle for building relationships and commitment to the larger community.  Aspirations to Actions will allow us to receive input from the community and design projects to effectively bring people together for the common good.

To that end, our first step is to ask you 4 questions and gather your insights as citizens of the community.  These 4 questions are:

1.  What kind of community do you want to live in?

2.  Why is that important to you?

3.  How is that different from how you see things now?

4.  What are some of the things that need to happen to create that kind of change?

I’ve made it easy for you to answer the questions by creating a Survey Monkey link where you can enter your answers to the questions, submit the survey and you’re done!  It should take less than 5 minutes of your time.  Feel free to write as little or as much as you’d like to answer the questions and your responses are anonymous.  If you have any questions, email me at jhaber@scopexcel.org

Here’s the link to the survey:  https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/RFC7H8J

A Snapshot of American Consumer Behavior

Consumer spending, which is responsible for about 70% of the economic activity in the United States, plays an important role in the structure and health of the US economy. Thus, answers to the following questions may give us clues about the state of our economy: who is spending, where are people spending, and what are people spending on? This blogpost will attempt to begin to answer these questions by presenting data on a breakdown of how consumers are spending, the changes in spending in the United States over the past few decades, and a couple of examples of how consumer spending impacts the development and success of businesses.

A Breakdown of How We Spend

The mean (average) consumer expenditure before taxes was $51,422 from June 2012 to June 2013 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, Consumer Expenditure Survey). One way to consider spending by income brackets is to order the sample of individuals by income, from lowest to highest, and split the sample of people into five groups, creating quintiles. The lowest quintile made up 8.6% of the aggregate expenditures, the second quintile 12.7%, the third quintile 16.7%, the fourth quintile 23.3%, and the highest quintile 34.4%. The following table present a breakdown of consumer expenditure based on income.

graph 1

Table 1:  Percent of income expended per item by income group (quintiles) before taxes, Data Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Consumer Expenditure Survey.

One of the biggest spending variations from lowest income quintile to upper income quintile can be seen in the percent of expenditure towards personal insurance and pensions—a 13.4 percentage point difference. On average, individuals in the upper quintile spent 15.6% of their income on personal insurance and pensions while individuals in the lower quintile spent 2.2% of their income. Another way of considering consumer expenditure is considering the percent of the aggregate expenditure each income group is responsible for (see table 2). For example, the upper quintile made up 55.7% of the total spending on personal insurance and pensions while the lowest quintile made up 1.8% of the total spending.

graph 2

Table 2:  Percent of aggregate expenditure each income group is responsible for (quintiles) before taxes, Data Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Consumer Expenditure Survey.

How Has Spending Changed

The amount households spend on certain items has changed over time, and for various reasons. For example, when comparing consumer expenditure statistics from 1949 to 2011, the amount individuals spend on homes has increased while the amount people spend on food has decreased.  gr-pm-spending-462-01

Figure 1: Source: “What America Buys,” Lam Thuy Vo/NPR and Bureau of Labor Statistics

In NPR’s (National Public Radio) What America Buys, the authors present one reason for the decrease in food and clothes expenditure: increased productivity in the agricultural and manufacturing sectors. Thus, technological innovations play a role in the change in consumer spending. The article also highlights that consumers are buying bigger houses on average and car ownership is more common.

So, now we have an idea of who is spending and what people are spending on. However, where are people spending?

Where are Americans Shopping

Where Americans shop depends on multiple factors. One factor is household income.

In The Middle Class Is Steadily Eroding. Just Ask the Business World., Schwartz presents the change in consumer expenditure as a result of income inequality, highlighting that stock shares have increased for “upper-end stores like Nordstrom and bargain-basement chains like Dollar Tree and Family Dollar Stores” while shares of middle of the road companies have fallen. In this article, when discussing the middle class customers of Olive Garden, a Morgan Stanley restaurant analyst, John Glass, highlighted that the growth of income is stagnant and the costs of necessities are rising. Thus, people have to reduce spending in other places.

The economic condition of those who identify as middle class may be pushing individuals to reconsider where they are shopping. According to Retale’s The Dollar Stores of America, the median income of a state is a potential indicator of the number of dollar stores in the area. For example, the median household income in South Carolina is $44,623 and there are 1.65 dollar stores per 10,000 citizens. However, in Mississippi, the median income is $38,882 and there are 2.45 dollar stores per 10,000 citizens. In this study, Retale is specifically considering the spread of the top 7 dollar store chains.

While these statistics are national, costs and needs vary by region. What do you think households in Sarasota County spend their income on? If you were to track your spending for 2 weeks, what would the breakdown of your spending look like?

The Abundance Festival, May 29, 2014, Broadway UMC, Indianapolis, IN

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Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) is about building community, from the inside out, finding out what is it, that we care about so much, that we are willing to take action to make our community a better place. This is one of those workshops that help me want to continue this ABCD work. Remember: there is no one we do not need.

John Mcknight and Peter Block, co-authors of the Abundant Community; Awakening the Power of families and neighborhoods, joined renowned Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann, author most recently of “Journey to the Common Good. Talked with us about how associations, institutions, churches and citizens can build and nurture relationships that allow us to unleash our gifts and create a better community, that moves us from a narrative of scarcity to one of abundance.

The Speakers:
John McKnight not only taught me Asset-Based Community Development, but along the way he became my friend. This was my first time meeting Peter Block but I held on to every word he said. Mari Evans was a guest speaker, she is known for her outstanding poetry and a dear friend of Maya Angelou. Walter Brueggemann brought the house down with his amazing biblical knowledge.

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DeAmon Harges is the original “Roving Listener” as a neighbor and staff member of the Broadway United Methodist Church, in Indianapolis, IN. His role is to listen and discover the gifts, passions and dreams of citizens in his community, and to find ways to utilize them in order to build community, economy, and “mutual delight.” DeAmon is also a Co-founder of Tesserae Learning Community, and an artist.  www.tesseraelearning.com

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The Artist: The perimeter of the room is lined with local artists selling their work:

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Mary's Blog 10Mary's Blog 11Broadway UMC: Everywhere I went through out the church, the gifts and talents of the community are all over the walls, it is true, there is no one we do not need.

Mary's Blog 12Mary's Blog 13Mary's Blog 14The People I Meet:

Mary's Blog 17Mary's Blog 18Mary's Blog 19Thanks to April Doner an ABCD connector, local artist, and amazing friend – I meet a whole bunch of great people.

Mary's Blog 21Mary's Blog 22Mary's Blog 23The neighborhood:
Asset mapping, is finding out what are those treasures in our neighborhood that make them special to us. We all haveMary's Blog 25 them so let’s go roving in the neighborhood.

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Residential Segregation & Suburban Poverty

New research published in the last few years has uncovered a recent phenomenon sweeping over residential housing all across the nation. Pockets and clusters of concentrated poverty are our most vivid images of residential segregation by income. But we are now in a time when we are having to reconceptualize our images of place and poverty to include areas that are much more familiar than ‘inner city neighborhoods’, ‘ghettos, or ‘the wrong side of the tracks’.

Recent Trends: # of People in Poverty are Increasing…

Data has shown that concentrated poverty was on the decline in the 1990s. By the close of 2010, there had been a large reallocation of the population to the poverty line, and into regions, neighborhoods and areas of concentrated and extreme poverty. Much of this turn was the result of a slowing economy and the recent economic downturn. In this time span, the number of people living below the federal poverty line increased by over 12 million, pushing the national rate of poverty to 15% (1).

The percent of residents living in poverty in Sarasota County increased from 8.4% in 2002 to 12.7% in 2012. The percent of residents under the age of 18 almost doubled from 11.9% in 2002, to 21.5% in 2012 (9).

The most recent census data released at the end of June (2014), revealed that the total population grew by about 10 million people over the last decade, but the percent of people living in high poverty areas increased by over 50%. In 2010, four states had one third of their populations living in high poverty areas, but by the end of the decade, a greater total of fourteen states had a third of its population living in poverty stricken areas (3).

The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies release annual data about housing in the United States. Most recent data show that 35.3% of American households (40.9 million) are cost burdened, meaning they spend about a third of their annual income on housing costs. Another 17.1% are severely cost burdened – shaving off at least 50% of their annual income for housing (4). This value has been increasing since the turn of 2000.

What does housing cost burden look like in Sarasota County?
(households with a housing demand that is at least 30% of their income)

Owners with a Mortgage                            47.5%
Owners without a Mortgage                     18.7%
Renters                                                        55.4%

[Source: Sarasota County Property Appraiser]



[Image Source: Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, State of the Nation’s Housing 2014]

The number of people in poverty are increasing in new places….

Concentrated poverty is something that is often more pronounced and characterized in inner city neighborhoods, and has historically been an affliction of more urban places. However, we must be careful to say that it doesn’t exist here in our communities. Poverty is affecting greater parts of our nation that have historically been middle-class, American communities. The Brooking Institution released a study, called The Suburbanization of Poverty, which evaluated the change in the U.S. poor population by community type between 2000 and 2008. The study found that the population of people living in poverty in large metropolitan suburbs increased faster than any other community type (10). More people in the suburbs are living in poverty than ever before. At the same time, the rate of poverty in the suburbs is increasing faster than any other community type in the nation.

Change in the U.S. Poor Population by Community Type, 2000 to 2008 
Population in Poverty

                                       2000                       2008                   Difference          % Change

Nation                           33,899,812           39,108,422           5,208,610             15.4%

Primary Cities              10,387,549           10,969,243           581,694                5.6%

Suburbs                        9,991,292             12,491,486           1,284,889             25.0%

Small Metro Areas       6,579,025             7,863,914             1,284,889             9.5%

Non-Metro Areas         6,941,946             7,783,779             841,833                12.1%

[Taken from: Brookings Institution, The Suburbanization of Poverty (2010)]

Suburban Poverty

Although residential segregation is still more pervasive by race (even in Sarasota County), recent research has revealed that residential segregation by income is on the rise, and has been for about three decades (6)(7). This is closely tied to the increasing income inequality that the nation has been experiencing. Not only are household incomes reaching greater levels of inequality, the housing market is mirroring these changes on our physical landscapes. In the last three decades, the percentage of housing marketed to middle-income households or mixed-income neighborhoods have decreased. On the other hand, the percentage of housing for low income, as well as higher level incomes, have increased (6). As we are seeing increasing polarization between low and high incomes, we are also seeing an increase divide between lower income and higher income housing affordability:

housing stock change

[Taken from: Pew Research Center, The Rise of Residential Segregation by Income (2012)]

Since housing is a durable good, the household profile to which the housing is marketed will not likely shift over time. In fact, as time passes, the value of the housing good decreases. (Unless, of course, processes of redevelopment, retrofitting and gentrification are swept over these areas.) This means that housing developed for lower income households today will always be housing for low income households, which will affect the socio-spatial layout of communities in the long run (7). In effect, the inequality that is being etched into our urban and suburban landscapes today will perforate far into the future.

The following images are taken from the aforementioned Pew Research Center report. They show the degree of residential segregation in the nation’s 10 most populated metropolitan areas. These are also some of the most highly residentially segregated areas by income. The red shade represents low income areas, the blue shade represents high income areas. The neutral shade represents a middle or mixed income area.

Segregation ATLSegregation LA     Segregation Miami


Segregation NYC     Segregation Washington DC
[Source: Pew Research Center, Social & Demographic Trends]

What would Sarasota County look like if a map such as those above were created?

 Unfortunately, there are consequences to residential income segregation. One of which being economic growth. This has been associated with spatial mismatch and skill complementarity (8).

→ Spatial mismatch speaks to a sociological idea that residents in concentrated, low income neighborhoods have greater difficulty in finding employment because they are often located at great distances from centers of high employment. They face challenges in long commuting times, as well as additional costs for travel that place a greater financial burden on households.

→ Skill complementarity is a concept that refers to the ratio of high-skilled workers to low-skilled workers that is optimal for economic growth in an area. When high skilled (often higher income) workers and low skilled (often lower income) workers are physically separated in the areas of the city they inhabit, economic growth can be hindered. Low skilled workers are not able to access to service- or manual- employment that is more demanded in higher income areas. On the other, high skilled labor is not available (or incentivized) in low income areas where high-skill services are needed.

Extreme concentrated poverty, in itself, has many consequences. Research has proven that poverty is related to underperforming and lower ranking public schools, poor housing and health conditions, barriers to private services and job opportunities, and higher crime rates (2)(5). A lack of quality education and opportunities for employment has led to high rates of local unemployment, increased instances of crime, and disincentives for children to stay in school.

With very high housing cost burdens, renters in low-income and impoverished neighborhoods are not meeting the higher rents needed for property owners to properly maintain buildings. Building neglect further leads to deteriorated housing conditions. Negative outsider perception and physical deterioration of the housing stock and built environment can lead to disinvestment of businesses and services in the area (5). Areas and neighborhoods of concentrated poverty or low-income households do not provide incentive for redevelopment without large governmental intervention to coax housing developers.


So let’s brainstorm solutions…

Income inequality is leaving an imprint on the physical place we live in every day. In a time of economic recovery, these are the issues we must consider as development regains momentum. The crux lies in the kind of development that we want to promote.

Mixed income housing is a growing field of interest in development of affordable housing. The principles of mixed income seeks to provide housing options wherein households of various income levels can share the same residential location. Such developments can be created at the street, block, or neighborhood scale.

Most interest in mixed income communities comes from the proposed benefits that these kinds of communities can have on lower income households. Such as:

→ Investment in housing in new, ‘up and coming’, neighborhoods that low income households would not otherwise have the means to invest in, thus increasing wealth and net worth. The ability to invest in housing of higher value are usually restricted to middle or higher income households.

→ As mentioned previously, low income households are traditionally geographically isolated from services. Mixed income housing can give low income households the same access to social services as other income level households.

→ Spatial mismatch is the concept that households are not located near areas that provide employment. Low income households are often located in neighborhoods that require long commutes to access employment – hindering accessibility, increasing household costs, and reducing hireability. Mixed income communities can connect lower income households to better paying jobs that are located closer to home.

→ The last major benefit that mixed income communities can have in lower income households lies in the neighborhood life and social benefits. Traditional neighborhoods do not connect people of varying income levels since these neighborhoods are usually physically divided or geographically distant. The benefits associated with social networks, lower crime rates, safer environments, and greater solidarity between people of different incomes can be paramount in improving social cohesion among people of varying incomes. (11)

Mixed income housing is an evolving concept. Its success depends on many factors and must evolve to the community in which it will be developed. The benefits described above are only a few that propose mixed income development as an aspect of affordable housing. Perhaps mixed income communities are an aspect of more inclusive communities in which people of all walks of life can share easy access to jobs, services, the corner market or the cafe down the street.

This is one type of solution that can ease residential segregation by income and associated consequences. There is no one solution and solutions are often a dynamic of different ideas and concepts that cover many different bases.

What do you think is another aspect of a solution to the recent trends we have been seeing across the country?

Have you seen these changes take place?

Leave a comment here or start a new conversation on our facebook page!

Visualization and Human Connection as Tools to Build a Better Community

Growing up, we participate in certain activities to help us build towards our own futures. For example, when asked what we want to be when we grow up, we use the information we are able to collect and our imaginations to visualize our future careers and lives. When learning how to interact with other people, many of our mentors and role models probably presented some version of the popular “treat others as you would like to be treated.” But what if we began to use these tools for something more than personal future planning? What if we began to use these tools to help build a greater community? Through the accessible presentation of community data, through individuals taking the time to consider the well-being of other members of the community, and through the presence of inclusive third-places we may be able to direct the skills we honed for personal development towards community development.

Visualizing Data

An important step in visualizing community change is being able to visualize the current state of your community as well as the potential state of your community given certain changes. This can be made possible with community data, such as data measuring the employment rate, graduation rates, rates of homelessness, and the number of empty single family homes in a community. Such data can tell us a story about how we may better improve our community for all of its members.

In his TED talk, David McCandless discusses the power of being able to visualize data, or create visual information, “so that we can see the patterns and connections that matter and then designing that information so it makes more sense, or tells a story, or allows us to focus only on the information that’s important.” For example, understanding financial figures that may reach beyond our full comprehension (such as billions of dollars) are better presented with figures that present relativity. As well, visual information is more accessible to everyone and would reduce the feeling of data overload.

To check out some visual presentations of Sarasota County’s community data, keep an eye out for SCOPE’s Community Report Card!

Another example of a way to visualize community data is through mapping. In an episode of Geospatial Revolution, members of the project “Map Kibera” presents one way in which mapping can help build a better community—by creating a visual presentation of the community data so the information is accessible to the people of the community. This project exposed opportunities to locate the community of Kibera’s resources, as well as opportunities to better utilize their resources.  The mapping project was started to help guide “a proper discussion about the future of Kibera.” For example, young girls shared places that are not safe to walk on the map. After these points were added to the map, police posts were placed in those areas. This creation of visual information helped people visualize what they can to do improve their community.

Sarasota County Green Map is an interactive, collaborative map that presents a visual of resources people may utilize in order to help create a more sustainable community. For example, you can find where local produce is accessible. The development of this map allows people to locate resources and potentially recognize what needs to be utilized more or what could be added to Sarasota County to make it a greener county.

Visualizing the Lives of Others

Outside of data, another way of visualizing your ideal community is through reflecting on how you would want your community to be designed if you were able to design your community before you joined it and you had no idea what your place in your community would be. Concepts such as the “Veil of Ignorance,” as found in John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, challenges people to consider what they would define as justice given that they were unaware of the barriers or privileges they had in life. Imagining a situation in which you did not know what privileges or barriers you’re faced with, what would you consider to be your ideal, just community?

Connecting in a Third-Place

While community data is a strong tool that can be used to enact great change, we have to remember that quantitative data does not tell the full story of the human experience. As well, we may be missing key information that impacts our ability to fully picture the lives of others. Thus, in order to better understand the other members of our community, we must learn more about our neighbors. One way to increase human interaction in a community is through the development of inclusive third-places. Third-place is the place that is neither work nor home, but another place where people can meet and spend time together. Opportunities to engage each other in conversation will allow people to understand what the community needs beyond what quantitative data can tell us on its own. As well, it provides opportunities for people to brainstorm ideas concerning how to approach the future.

So, using information you gain from community data and human connections, what do you want our community to look like as we move into the future?

The 3D Printing Revolution

Cube-3D-Home-Printer-1Back in March, I was shopping for an anniversary present for my somewhat geeky partner, and one of the first websites that came to mind was shapeways.com. This website catalogues 100% 3D printed items and he had been talking about the site for a while. I bought him this Sierpinski tetrahedron of Love but during my shopping I couldn’t help buying myself this “Boxed box pendant”. It turns out that this eye-catching jewelry has fueled many conversations about 3D printing. So, I felt inspired to research for a blog post about this technology’s potential to rapidly change the manufacturing industry and in turn, society.

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has actually been around since 1984! It turns out that this technology has been used by manufactures for years to develop models of products before mass production. 3D printing is made possible by a machine that reads a 3D printable file and lays down successive layers of liquid, powder, paper, or sheet material, building an object from a series of cross sections. This process can take from hours to days, depending on the additive manufacturing process and the size and shape of the object.

As you can imagine, simplifying all of the processes between design creation and the finished product is truly revolutionary. Designers are no longer confined to the limitations of mass production. This process reduces waste, such as unused fabrics or materials, because the additive manufacturing uses only enough material to print item. Plus, it removes any need to ship products around the world before reaching the consumer. A great example of the freedom that 3D printing allows is the shoe. Instead of mass producing hundreds of designs in many different sizes and hoping that consumers are interested in a shoe, instead you could select your shoe design and provide the measurements for each of your feet, providing you with a perfectly fitting, stylish shoe.

There are seemingly endless innovations that are being made possible by 3D printing technology. One of the more heartwarming inventions are prosthetics and medical improvements for children. Kids grow very quickly, making constant upsizing for prosthetics very expensive. This video shows the mechanical hand developed by a mechanical designer and a man who lost his fingers. Soon after its creation, mothers contacted the designer duo to make their kids a 3D printed prosthetic hand. Other innovative applications of additive manufacturing includes shoes, transplant organs, makeup, animal products, cars, and my personal favorite, a printable bee hive in production and/or development.

The idea behind the printable bee hive is to combat colony collapse disorder with an open source design to print on a 3D printer. The products are designed to be flat before assembly for easy shipping. This way people all over the world interested in saving our very necessary bee populations, have an affordable easy way to obtain a bee hive to get their bee keeping started.  These bees help pollinate 1/3 of the food we eat!

It is hard to know the best ways to prepare younger generations for a rapidly changing work world, but one sure-fire way is to embrace and teach technology. Do you know a young (or old) person interested in 3D printing? Check out the regionally local Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Tampa. A new exhibit opened last weekend that shows how 3D printing is saving lives and changing the world. This is a great place to inspire young minds about science and engineering!

It is hard to predict how this technology will change our future. While this technology empowers designers to rapidly make their products accessible to individuals, what will it do to the job market? I think it is too early in the game to predict the results of the 3D printing revolution. What do you think? Please leave a comment below and discuss these emerging innovations.

The Middle Class, Inequality, and the United States of America’s Struggle

The other day I was thinking…”What exactly does it mean to be in the American middle class?” Even with the news of the middle class dissolving into the abyss, we still hold on to our dream of the post-World War II ideal American family, with a single family suburban home, a car, and some form of a furry, domesticated animal (Thanks to the GI Bill! But let’s be honest, with discriminatory policies such as redlining, this American dream was not exactly equally accessible to everyone.)! But, this dream has been moving further and further out of reach for the overall American population. So, what does it mean to be a member of middle class America? Where is the disappearing middle class going? How did we get to this point and what are we doing about it?

The State of the Middle Class

The middle class is both shrinking in size and in the amount of wealth and earned income. The Pew Research Center found that people who self-identify as middle class declined from 2008 to 2014 from 53% to 44%, while the percent of people identifying in the lower class has increased from 25% to 40%.  But as middle class wages remains stagnant (some argue it’s actually decreasing), the cost of living continues to increase.

The data presented in “The Lost Decade of the Middle Class,” supports the finding that the income of middle class is decreasing.

a decade of decline

(image from Pew Research Center’s “The Middle Class: Key Data Points from Pew Research”)

Further, the share of income for the middle class is decreasing. In 1970, the middle class earned 62% of the US aggregate household income, while the upper class earned 29%. In 2010, the middle class earned 45% of the US aggregate household income while the upper class earned 46%.

percent distribution

(image from Pew Research Center’s “The Lost Decade of the Middle Class”)

In her TED talk, Chrystia Freeland stated that “our countries are getting richer, our companies are getting more efficient, but we’re not creating more jobs and we’re not paying people as a whole more.” According to an EPI study, CEO’s compensation grew faster than the income growth of the 0.1% highest income earners and faster than the “typical” workers’ income in the industries of the 350 biggest American public companies being analyzed.

This study finds that in 1965, the CEO to worker compensation was 20 to 1. In 2013, the CEO to worker compensation was 295.9 to 1! And, this is excluding the Facebook outlier, which would then change the ratio to be 510.7 to 1. Pretty hard to picture? Check out this clip to try to understand what this means.

Another issue concerning middle-tier compensation is “job polarization.” Job growth is high in less-valued and high-valued industries. However, it is not very strong in middle-valued industries. Specifically, between 1980 and 2009, less-valued jobs increased by 110%, highly-valued jobs increased by 100%, and middle-valued jobs increased by only 46%.

How Did We Get Here

One of the greatest controversial questions that provides polarizing answers…who broke it? Well, the middle class has some ideas.


(image from Pew Research Center’s “The Lost Decade of the Middle Class”)

Of the “self-described middle class adults [who] say it’s more difficult now than it was a decade ago for middle-class people to maintain their standard of living,” 62% blames Congress, 54% blames banks and financial institutions, and 47% blames large corporations “a lot” according to the results from the Pew survey.

Chrystia Freeland looks at how “crony capitalism,” globalization, and the shift in technology impact income inequality. Crony capitalism refers to political corruption leading to political decisions that “benefit a group of well-connected insiders but don’t actually do much good for the rest of us.” One may consider deregulation of the financial sector as an example. As for globalization and technological advances, Freeland is clear in stating that these things have positive impacts on our lives! However, she highlights negative aspects such as the global economic and political power large global companies gain. Another concern she presents is the disappearance of middle class jobs as a result of technological advances and globalization.

Shall We Fix It

Another great question that leads to polarizing answers is what are we going to do about it? And the answer is so polarizing because, of course, someone is not going to be happy with the changes proposed. How should we face the challenge of reducing inequality and bringing back the middle class?

There are varied proposed solutions. David Madland presents quite a few (35) in “Making Our Middle Class Stronger.” To keep it brief, I’ll present his categorized summary. Overall, the 35 policy proposals aim to build up and strengthen the middle class by lowering college costs, lowering costs and other barriers to job training, helping “workers do well when companies do well,” lowering costs associated with losing a job or being sick, increasing the capacity for workers to be caregivers for their elderly parents and their kids, improving retirement saving options, stabilizing housing costs, reducing cost of transportation and energy, increasing number of middle-class jobs, and creating institutional changes so policy makers focus on the middle class daily.

In “The American Middle Class is No Longer the World’s Richest,” David Leonhardt and Kevin Quealy highlight that the United States’ economy is indeed growing—the struggle of the United States is a result of the poor distribution from which “a small percentage of households is fully benefiting from it.”  In this article, the director of the LIS, Janet Gornik, stated that the disposable income inequality in the United States is higher than elsewhere because of relatively low redistribution to people from lower economic classes and relatively low taxation on the people from the upper economic classes.

Of course, there’s the option of just adapting to the current state of our economy, which is what some businesses are doing now. In “The Middle Class is Steadily Eroding. Just Ask the Business World,” Nelson Schwartz highlights how businesses are adapting. Ninety percent of the increase in consumption between 2009 and 2012 resulted from the consumption of the top 20% of income-earning households. The top 5% of income-earners made up 38% of domestic consumption in 2012. To respond to the changing consumer base, some businesses are “chasing richer customers with a wider offering of high-end goods and services, or focusing on rock-bottom prices to attract the expanding ranks of penny-pinching customers.” Businesses targeting middle-income earners are struggling; “shares of Sears and J.C. Penney have fallen more than 50 percent since the end of 2009, even as upper-end stores like Nordstrom and bargain basement chains like Dollar Tree and Family Dollar stores have more than doubled in value over the same time.”

Bringing the Frog to a Slow Boil or Actively Ignoring the Problem

Concerning addressing the problem as we are faced with it, Chrystia Freeland questions how we’ve gotten to this point. The “boiled frog phenomenon” suggests that we didn’t recognize the smaller, marginal changes over time even though the overall change is large. She presents, as well, an idea of living in a culture of “symbolic equality.” For example, we don’t have a uniform for socioeconomic classes as were present in the past (“billionaires wear jeans”)! She also highlights that discussing inequality may be uncomfortable, or even “threatening”, for some due to the role of income redistribution in solving the problem.

How long have there been signs of the middle class struggling, in reality? A Time article from 1986 states “The American Middle Class, the provocateurs contend, is no longer so great. It is shrinking steadily, goes the theory, and shedding its numbers into the economic extremes of wealth and poverty.” 1986. Has America been ignoring the signs of the disappearing middle class? Is America going to sufficiently address the clearly growing inequality now, or are we too comfortable/apathetic to change our lifestyles and policies? Will a political system heavily influenced by money even allow for the necessary changes? Or will we allow for inequality increase to the point in which the United States will no longer be recognizable? Only time will tell…

Curious about the state of the middle class in Sarasota County? Wondering how we line up with the rest of the nation? Well, look out for SCOPE’s Community Report card! The Economics section will provide data on income distribution in Sarasota County, as well as other important economic indicators! In the meantime, what do you think we can do as individuals to help bring back a strong and thriving middle class?

Newtown 100th Centennial Opening Ceremony

The kick off began at Fred Atkins Park, April 17th, at 5pm.  It was a very nice day – not to hot or windy. It began with a prayer that so many are all familiar with. Our grandmothers especially always believed in prayer. They believed that prayer changes things.


Next a libation was shared with our ancestors asking for their blessings and permission to continue with our dreams, hopes and prayers.  A their names were shouted out one by one, we all felt the presents of our forefathers that built Newtown from the ground up. How they had to struggles and fight for what they believed in.  They were such proud folks, even though they did not have much, they had each other.


Residents were asked to share their stories of what living in Newtown has meant to them.  Everyone, had love in their hearts and a smile on their face as they shared their story. Remembering when 27th Street now Dr. Martin Luther King Way (MLK) was a lucrative thriving business district, where one could go and shop for everything they needed.

I was born and raised in Newtown and living in Newtown for me has meant so much.  We grew up on love.  Our parents raised us with good old-fashioned values, respect, dignity and pride. I know everyone has gifts and talents, and there is no one we do not need. There are no throw away people.

Our Ancestors already paved the way for us.  They showed us how to turn MLK into a business corridor.

Back then they supported each other, they bought each other goods. They trusted each other and they became friends. My father the late Arthur Butler was a fruit picker and he started doing what he knows how to do best – picking and selling fruit. He would travel all over Florida because he knew where the best watermelons grew.  He knew every business man & women in Newtown; he would stop by their store just to say hi.

DataByte: Buying [your] Big Biking Data

Sarasota County has a strong biking community, and perhaps, increasingly so. It’s not uncommon to see recreational cyclists spanning lengthy loops around their cities, meandering down coastal lanes on beach cruisers, or finding their way to the store down the road.

What more ideal environment can you ask for besides flat roads, cool coastal breezes, expanding bike lane networks, recreational trails, supportive biking communities, and even, bike racks on public transportation

The U.S. Census, in a first ever report focused exclusively on biking and walking, is showing that biking and walking are increasingly becoming a first-choice means of transportation around the nation. Over the last decade, the numbers of workers who ride their bike to work and back have increased by about 60%. While the total number of biking workers is still a fraction of total workers in the United States (0.6%), this group has seen the greatest increases over the past few years.

(The data presented by the U.S. Census is limited in scope because it only gauges worker travel from home to place of employment.)

Biking to work in Sarasota County may be more of a challenge compared to more bikeable, less sprawled, and perhaps more temperate places. If we look at the data, cities that developed earlier in U.S. history tend to be more walkable and bikeable than newer, more modern cities. The era of suburbanization and uncontrolled growth led to car-dependent transportation networks that left little room for cyclists or walkers who are now spending more time and traveling longer distances between places.

What factors affect the mode of transportation you choose?

Travel Time
The data presented in the Census Report show that of those workers who did walk to work spent, on average, just over ten minutes in travel time. Workers who rode their bicycle to work spent just about 20 minutes in travel time. Workers using other modes of transportation to work had an average commuting time of just over 25 minutes.

What this can translate to is that cyclists and walkers are more likely to live closer to their places of work than workers who drove, carpooled, used public transportation, or other means.












Departure Time
The time at which workers had to be at work played a role in the mode of transportation used – workers who had to leave for work between 9am and noon were more likely to walk or cycle than workers who had to leave earlier in the morning. Those workers were more likely to choose another mode of transportation. Also, employers with more flexible schedules were more likely to employ workers or have employees who would walk or cycle to work.

Income and car availability also played a role in choosing mode of transportation to work. This image below shows that lower income ranges have a higher working population that walk or cycle to work – walking being the most used mode. Workers who do not have a vehicle are more likely to walk or cycle to work. But, as the number of available vehicles increase in the worker’s household, the likelihood of walking or cycling decreases.













Other Factors:
There are other factors that also affected the mode of travel used to get to work. If a working household did not have any children of their own, they were more likely to walk or bike to work (2.8%); whereas a household with children were more likely to choose another mode of transportation. Fewer than 2% of households with children walk or bike to work.

Educational attainment also has an effect on the likelihood to walk or bike to work. For this group, the study considered the education attainment of workers aged 25+. The results showed a polarized pattern: Those workers with a graduate or professional degree, as well as those workers who did not graduate from high school, showed higher rates of cycling or walking as the primary mode of transportation to work, as opposed to high school graduates, adults with some college, or undergraduates.

An additional factor to consider is the built environment in which the worker’s residence community is situated. Workers who live in cities and urban spaces are more likely to walk or cycle to work than workers who live in suburban communities. Workers who lived outside of the metropolitan area were the least likely to walk or cycle to work.

What do we do with this information? 

The data presented by this survey study show that there are many different factors that go into a decision to choose a personal automobile as a primary mode of transportation, as opposed to walking or riding a bicycle. We might want to consider why the built the environment in urban settings are more suited for cyclists and pedestrians as mode of transportation. By borrowing those characteristics and applying to suburban communities, we can increase non-motorized transportation and reliance on automobiles. While there are many factors to consider, this type of data shows the dynamic of non-motorized transportation and which evolving. The next step is to consider how particular factors can be tweaked to affect a positive change in the trends.

[Link to the full report: May 2014, Modes Less Traveled—Bicycling and Walking to Work in the United States: 2008–2012: ACS Reports]

What hinders you from walking or bicycling to your destination? What changes could be made to your built environment that would improve the chances of walking or riding your bike?

Cities Buying Your Data

A way in which city planners are working to improve transportation networks and infrastructure for walking and biking is through harnessing the power of big data collected by private companies. In what has been a somewhat controversial move, STRAVA has opted to sell their collected data to metropolitan planners with the goal of improving the built environment to facilitate non-motorized travel. STRAVA already has several cities using its data – including Portland, OR; Orlando, FL; Arlington, VA; Glasgow, Scotland; and Alpine Shire, Australia.

STRAVA is one of many companies that allow users to track their cycling, walking or running routes through the use of smart phones or GPS devices. The data is saved to the company internet site where users can track time and distances traveled, compete with other users, and show marked improvements in their training. STRAVA has recently started a new branch called STRAVA Metro that provides the anonymous data uploaded by users to cities for use by departments of transportation, city planners, advocacy groups, etc. The intent is to provide in-depth data for analysis by actors who have a role in shaping transportation.

The data provided by STRAVA Metro is aggregated and anonymous. The aggregated data creates a ‘heat map’ of cycling and walking/running routes that is laid over a map of the city. This creates a ‘high use’ map that shows exactly where heavy cycling and foot traffic is concentrated and why it is concentrated there. Using the information, planners can target improvements and gaps in the transportation network that need to be addressed.

This tool, STRAVA Labs, will give you an idea of the type of data being studied. The images below show high use trails by cyclists. The data sold to cities are much more involved, with breakdowns by time, geography, etc. With this data, Sarasota County and its metropolitan jurisdictions could have greater insight into the routes traveled by cyclists, consider why those routes are preferred, and apply those characteristics to expand the cycling transportation network.

The founder and editor of Bike Portland, an independent news source for all things biking in Portland, noted the significance of this data to the city:

The problem for many transportation agencies today is that, while bicycling is on the rise (for both transportation and recreation), there remains a major lack of data. This gap in data makes it much harder to justify bicycle investments, plan for future bicycle traffic growth, illustrate the benefits of bike infrastructure investments, and so on. It also makes non-auto use of roads very easy for agencies to overlook. And while ODOT and many cities do bike counts already, they only measure one location for a short period of time.
(taken from: StreetsBlog USA)


What are your thoughts on this matter? Do you have concerns about big data uploaded by private users to the internet being provided to governments and planning organizations? Do you think that the consequences may outweigh the benefits of using big data for public improvement?

Give us your feedback! We’d love to hear your input on this topic.




Sarasota County, STRAVA Labs






City of Sarasota, STRAVA Labs


Local Business, Hidden Wonder

The Pros

This past week, I had the pleasure of seeing Aaron Thielen and Michael Mahler’s “Hero, the Musical” at the Asolo Repertory Theatre, which premiered in Chicago. As the lead character Hero expressed appreciation for his world and exclaimed, “there is wonder all around,” I absorbed the words and reflected on how this theme could apply to the Sarasota community. What are the wondrous parts of Sarasota that may, at times, be taken for granted? I couldn’t help but consider locally owned businesses in Sarasota! Why are local businesses so important? The following list, adapted from the Portland Buy Local campaign’s “Top 10 Reasons to Buy Local,” presents a few of the positive aspects of local business in Sarasota County.

1. Keep money in the local economy and create jobs.

When you buy local, more money stays within your community. Maine Center for Economic Policy conducted a study on economic impacts of buying goods from local businesses in Portland (“Going Local, Quantifying the Economic Impacts of Buying from Locally Owned Businesses in Portland, Maine” by Amar Patel and Garrett Martin) . According to this report, in Greater Portland, spending $100 dollars in a locally owned business has a $25 greater economic impact on the community than spending $100 at a national chain store. Further “based on 2007 retail sales figures, shifting 10% of consumer spending to locally owned businesses would result in an additional $127 million in economic activity in Greater Portland with 874 new job generating over $35 million in wages.

2. Maintain individuality and uniqueness of Sarasota County.

One local treasure that shapes the identity of Sarasota County are the local artists! In “Does Sarasota do enough to support local artists?” Jessie Van Berkel highlights the issue of ignoring local treasure by outsourcing artists rather than commissioning local art. In this article, Ted Gola (who produced “SRQ Tic Tac Toe”) is quoted saying “They [Sarasota locals] are being defined by somebody who doesn’t understand the dynamics, the habits, the things that really shape the place.” This quote embodies the importance of local art in preserving the unique identity of Sarasota County.

3. “Benefit From Local Owners’ Expertise.”

Every Saturday, the Farmer’s Market attracts many vendors and consumers downtown, and it’s like a different world. Vendors at the organic vegetable stand help you choose a new vegetable to try when you’re feeling adventurous and tell you their favorite way to prepare it. At another stand, the vendor tells you how exactly she makes candied jalapenos. When the business owner works closely with their product and the customer, there is a greater potential for transparency and shared information about the product.

4. “Preserve Entrepreneurship” and Increase Choice

As stated by President Barack Obama, “Entrepreneurs embody the promise of America: the idea that if you have a good idea and are willing to work hard and see it through, you can succeed in this country. And in fulfilling this promise, entrepreneurs also play a critical role in expanding our economy and creating jobs.” The development of local businesses preserves entrepreneurship, which is labeled as a positive force due to the entrepreneurs’ role in economic growth and innovation.   As well, when there are many small businesses, consumers have more choices!

The Barriers

In pondering the ways we as a community can support local businesses and become more conscious about how we are spending, I tracked my own spending for two weeks as someone living in Sarasota. One thing I discovered was that I tend to spend more money at chain stores than locally owned businesses. (Note: I did not consider monthly, required payments in personal spending). Since then, I have reflected and recognized four challenges I face in my own life when deciding how to spend money: accessibility, affordability, routine, and awareness.


personal spending

Focusing specifically on grocery shopping, the first challenge I face is accessibility. I don’t have a car, so I mostly rely on public transit to get around. I have (mostly) learned how to condense all of my groceries into one fabric bag! However, using public transit extends travel time. Given my fully scheduled weekly routine and the limited evening hours for the bus route, this doesn’t give me much time to become aware of Sarasota’s local businesses during the week by exploring, or even access the ones I’m aware of. Thus, I take the bus or walk to the closest chain grocery store in my free time because it’s accessible. As well, chain stores have sales like “buy one, get one” increasing the affordability of groceries.

While everyone may be faced with challenges, some can be overcome! For example, word of mouth (or internet research) will help you become aware of Sarasota’s local businesses. Perhaps you can ride-share with another patron of the same business if you have limited transportation! As for affordability, one could potentially pick and choose what products they buy from local businesses. Personally, in attempt to patron local businesses, I joined a farm co-op, which I heard about through a friend and co-worker, who also takes me with her when she picks up her produce (solving both the accessibility, routine, and awareness challenge). It provides me with all of my weekly produce, and I continue to shop at chain grocery stores for other groceries to stay within my budget.


This post isn’t to demand a complete disconnect from the global economy; the interconnected world economy has many positive factors– for example, even though “Hero, the Musical” opened in Chicago, it is currently being performed in Sarasota! Globalization has allowed us to share the benefit of technological advances, art, food, medical advances, etc. Rather, this post was designed to challenge everyone to recognize the treasures within the Sarasota community; it’s to promote both the awareness of where the money we spend is going and to promote the nurturing of the local economy through the utilization and appreciation of its resources. As well, we should consider the impact of our consumer choices on other societies and economies, rejecting the practice of exploitation of other human beings in the name of “efficiency.”

There is wonder all around the Sarasota community, from the arts to the local foods. Where do you see wonder in Sarasota? To address one barrier (awareness), we can compile a list of locally owned businesses in Sarasota! To contribute, just comment below or submit your suggestions to elapeyrolerie@scopexcel.org!