Any day now, someone will be knocking on your door or calling on the phone, looking to take down your data for that regular American ritual, the U.S. Census.
It happens every 10 years, like cicadas emerging from hibernation to raise a cacophony in the trees. The difference is, the arrival of the census takers is mandated by the U.S. Constitution and provides valuable insight into the lives of our communities.
And it’s more than insight. An accurate census count helps to redraw congressional, state and local district boundaries. (The Sarasota County Commission caused a huge uproar last fall when it redrew district maps before the 2020 new census count and it is now facing a federal lawsuit.) Census numbers also tell us how many congressional representatives each state gets and where those billions of dollars in federal funding flow.
Thanks to earlier censuses and other data, we already have a pretty good idea of what this census is going to reveal about Sarasota. We’re a picture of where the rest of the country is heading, both in terms of an aging population and one that is increasingly diverse, largely thanks to immigration.
You probably are keenly aware of our aging population. “If you go to a burger joint like Five Guys, you expect to see a diverse crowd of young people, but in Sarasota, it’s all older people,” says Adrian Moore, a Sarasotan who serves as vice president of policy at Reason Foundation, a national nonprofit libertarian think tank.
With more than 140,000 people age 65 or older, Sarasota ranks fourth among Florida counties in percentage of people that age (34.4 percent), and seventh in terms of raw population.
That aging demographic has brought many benefits to Sarasota, particularly as wealthy retirees move here from other parts of the country. They start companies, become active philanthropists and enhance our community through volunteerism. But there’s also a price to that demographic dependence.
The large group of older Sarasotans puts us in a state that demographers call “natural decrease,” in which the number of people who die in an area outnumber those who are born. Of 381 metropolitan areas in the country, Sarasota ranks only behind Pittsburgh in natural decrease, according to demographer William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. (Six other Florida counties are in the top 10.)
“In some ways, a lot of these Florida areas are what we’ll see in the rest of the country 20 to 30 years from now as baby boomers go from their late 60s and early 70s to their early 90s,” Frey says.
That’s a little ominous: If its population only depended on births outnumbering deaths for its growth and vitality, Sarasota would be in danger of withering to nothing. Fortunately, the community has always attracted newcomers.
Those newcomers tend to fall into two groups. One is those older folks leaving cold Northern climates. The other is the workers who will fill the jobs in Sarasota’s largely service-based economy. These are the lower-wage workers who serve the older folks, whether it’s in tourism, construction, lawn care or in the restaurants, health care facilities and retirement homes patronized by all those winter escapees.
And that’s where Sarasota lines up with the other national trend. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, immigrants and their descendants are projected to account for 88 percent of U.S. population growth through 2065, assuming current immigration trends continue. By 2045, Frey says, the U.S. will have a “majority minority” population—that is, racial minorities will outnumber whites across the country.
In Sarasota, Hispanics today are estimated at almost 47,000, nearly 11 percent of the overall population. That’s 56 percent growth since 2010 alone, and the University of Florida expects it to grow another 64 percent by 2040 to 76,980 people. In neighboring Manatee County, the numbers are even greater: 59 percent growth since 2010. Hispanics now make up 19 percent of the Manatee population, or 79,437, a share that will grow to 24 percent by 2040 to 98,502.
Anyone following national political news knows we’re seeing more income inequality, as well as conflict between generations (as the millennials say: “OK, boomer”) and cultures. But in Sarasota, these trends are accentuated. According to Luz Corcuera, executive director of UnidosNow, a nonprofit formed 10 years ago to help elevate Sarasota’s Latinos through education, some of these national issues have seeped into the local conversation.
“To some extent, immigrants don’t feel welcome here,” Corcuera says. Despite the efforts of many groups, including local foundations, to integrate Sarasota society, “the Latino community has a long way to go. We are almost afraid to have this conversation,” she says.
Most of those Latinos are of working age, filling vital jobs in Sarasota’s construction and service industries—whether in restaurant kitchens, hotels or as home health aides. “People call it the browning of America,” Corcuera says. “Baby boomers and retirees are getting out of the labor market, and the jobs will be in the hands of the Latinos who are supporting the economy.”
While affluent retirees are drawn to Florida for sunshine and low taxes, a different mix of factors attracts Latino workers. Strong family ties among Latinos is a big one, Corcuera says; if they already have family in the area, they’re more likely to come, whether from elsewhere in the state, the country or abroad.
Turmoil in places like Puerto Rico and Venezuela also has people looking for a fresh start in a place with economic opportunity. Census data on where Sarasota’s Latino immigrants hail from, however, indicates that, just like nationally, Mexico leads the pack by a wide margin. More than 11,000 people from Mexico called Sarasota home in 2010, the year of the most recent survey, compared to roughly 5,100 Puerto Ricans, 4,000 Cubans, 2,000 other Central Americans and 4,600 other South Americans.
If demography is destiny, it pays for Sarasota to study the trends. They’re already having a major impact on many aspects of life on the Gulf Coast, including housing, schools, culture and services—and a political impact, some say, may not be far behind.
The one topic that everyone agrees on is that Sarasota suffers from a severe lack of affordable housing.
“Either by design or default, we have created a service-based economy dependent on a service workforce, and we have created no service workforce housing,” says Jon Thaxton, a former Sarasota County commissioner who is now senior vice president for community investment at the Gulf Coast Community Foundation. “We are forcing people to travel greater and greater distances to get to work. That’s not healthy and it’s not sustainable.”
A United Way report known as ALICE—for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed—looks at a phenomenon once commonly called the working poor, and found that 37 percent of Sarasota’s households are either at the federal poverty level, or are above that but don’t earn enough to meet the basic cost of living.
ALICE includes not just Latinos, but encompasses all races. It’s more than just the service jobs; even people in professional roles such as teaching are struggling.
“No one is excluded from what we’re experiencing in Sarasota when it comes to housing,” says Renee Snyder, Habitat for Humanity Sarasota’s president and CEO.
Rachel Black, 29, a dental worker, and her husband, a construction worker-turned-dog groomer, found themselves paying $1,000 a month for a home in north Sarasota near Desoto Lakes without potable water. “We went through three different landlords,” she says. “None of them lived locally.”
With two children under age 7, they were accepted into a Habitat for Humanity program in which they put in 500 hours of sweat equity and now own their own home near Tuttle Elementary School. “Habitat is a huge blessing,” Black says.
An increasingly diverse population is raising demand in the school system for English as a Second Language and other specialized services. Kindergartens now see more than one-third of their enrollment among Latino children, says Corcuera at UnidosNow. Moore, at Reason Foundation, says his wife volunteers with Sarasota’s Literacy Council, which is seeing increased demand for ESL instruction.
Often Latino students have different needs; their families may be working multiple jobs and have less engagement with the school than white American parents. And the schools may often misinterpret a language barrier for low achievement and shunt Latino students to special education programs.
Immigrants eventually assimilate, but creating programs for students learning English as a second language and finding ways to get their parents involved takes time and funding. Adding to the friction, some of the older newcomers object to paying for those programs, asserting that they are on a fixed income and have already paid their fair share of school taxes in the places they just moved from.
No doubt about it: One of the big draws for the wealthy retirees who flee the Northeast and Midwest for Florida is the state’s lack of an income tax. That incentive became even sweeter with the tax reform passed in 2017, which halted the practice of allowing people to deduct state and local taxes from their federal tax bills. That effectively raised rates on people in high tax states like New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and California, says Sean Snaith, Ph.D., director of the University of Central Florida Institute for Economic Forecasting.
Tax reform came atop an economy already growing its way out of the 2008 recession, Snaith says, with housing growth and a bull market on Wall Street. “Households have seen tens of trillions of dollars in additional wealth that have been created over the past four or five years, and that of course impacts retirees’ decisions,” Snaith says. “Sarasota tends to get a relatively more affluent retiree. Those people’s decisions are often based on financial asset values.
“That has been and will continue to be a catalyst for population growth,” Snaith says.
Travis Brown, who wrote a book and runs a website, both under the name “How Money Walks,” charts the movement of adjusted gross income around the country. He found that Sarasota County gained $11.75 billion in AGI from 1992 to 2018.
“We live in a world where incomes are mobile, and [people] are very knowledgeable about what they get for their money,” Brown says.
The top five counties sending people to Sarasota during that time: Cook County, Illinois; Oakland County, Michigan; Fairfield County, Connecticut; Westchester County, New York; and Fairfax County, Virginia. “You tend to have upper-income individuals choosing Sarasota as their destination,” Brown says. And once they do, their friends take note—and follow along “like ducks on a flyway,” Brown says.
And Sarasota—like the rest of Florida—needs to keep attracting newcomers, says Michael Snipes, Ph.D., an economics instructor at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee. Since Florida has no income tax, it needs newcomers and tourists to pay sales taxes and resort fees. That money then builds infrastructure, which then keeps attracting people. “It’s the snake that feeds on its own tail—a self-perpetuating cycle,” Snipes says.
For all the stresses like traffic jams, construction and environmental concerns, Sarasota’s influx of newcomers brings many benefits to the region.
Older philanthropists move in and embrace their adopted home, says Thaxton at Gulf Coast Community Foundation. He cited as one example Charles and Margery Barancik, snowbirds who had been coming to Sarasota for 30 years until their deaths in a collision with a police car last year. The Baranciks started a major foundation in 2014 that donated more than $50 million to dozens of arts, education and social services organization.
That’s a virtuous circle, Thaxton says. Sarasota’s vibrant arts scene—an opera house, a ballet company, the Southeast’s largest professional repertory theater, the Ringling Museum and the newest venue, the Sarasota Art Museum—attracts people like the Baranciks. “The likelihood of the Baranciks living in Sarasota without the arts that we have is pretty small,” Thaxton says.
Hand-in-hand is the way newcomers have spiced up local dining options. Decades ago, Mexican, Thai and Japanese restaurants were the most exotic options for local diners. These days, it’s easy to find great food from Korea, El Salvador, Laos, India and the Middle East, and there are a number of specialty grocery stores that carry international ingredients you won’t find at Publix. “People keep telling us, ‘Have you heard about this new Colombian restaurant?’,” says Moore of the Reason Foundation. “There’s got to be three new Peruvian restaurants in town in the last few years.”
“We’ve not had any person sitting as an elected county commissioner who was not a Republican since 1974,” Thaxton says. “No independent, no Democrat, nothing but Republicans. It’s really safe to characterize Sarasota County as a Republican stronghold.”
Yet many of those Republicans, including Thaxton, can sound like national Democrats when talking about their strong social conscience. Never mind national conservative talking points about shrinking government; Sarasota Republicans take pride in having built a first-class health system, high quality schools and parks, and an aggressive environmental lands program.
Latinos have not yet made an impact on local politics, but that may change. “Latinos, even if they are citizens and eligible to vote, tend not to turn out as much as the white or black population,” says Frey at Brookings. “As the population is becoming more diverse, more Latinos will vote, but they will still lag over the whole population.”
Corcuera at UnidosNow acknowledges that Latino political involvement has been low.
“We don’t have any Latinos in an elected position,” says Corcuera. “It’s our own fault because we have not prepared people to take on those challenges. The next generation will be very active. Our future is in their hands.”
Dan Fost is a former staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle, and a former contributing editor of American Demographics magazine.