ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) -- Household income remains stagnant in Florida almost five years from the start of the recession as the state's largest cities rank at the bottom in income levels for the nation's most populous metro areas, according to U.S. Census figures released Thursday.
Florida's median household income in 2012 of over $45,000 decreased slightly from the previous year, but the change was statistically insignificant. However, Florida's median household income is down more than 11 percent from when it was $50,700 in 2000. Only seven other states had higher decreases in the past dozen years, the Census figures showed.
Nationally, the median household income was $51,371 in 2012. Of the nation's 10 most populous states, Florida's median household income was the lowest.
Among the states hit hardest by the recession, Florida has yet to make up for lost ground and that is reflected in the household income, economists say.
"This recovery is still a work in progress," said Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida. "It may be four and a quarter years old, but in many ways it's still embryonic."
The slow recovery has created a cycle of consumer caution that helps tap down household income. Even though Florida had some of the nation's largest job gains in July, the unemployment rate was still 7.1 percent. The slack labor market creates little room to negotiate higher wages and consumers end up spending less money, Snaith said.
"You kind of keep moving along and waiting for some lift to come along but it doesn't appear to be along the near horizon," he said.
Three Florida metro areas ranked at the bottom of the list for household income in the nation's 25 most populous cities. The Tampa metro area was last with a median household income of about $44,000 - half that of Washington, D.C., the city at the top of the list. Metro Orlando was the next lowest at $46,000, followed by South Florida - made up of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach - at $46,600. Those figures were unchanged from the previous year.
Metro Tampa, which includes St. Petersburg and Clearwater, has a higher percentage of residents on Social Security than the national rate. It also has a lower rate of working residents than the national average - 2 out of 5 residents aren't in the workforce. Those two factors may contribute to the metro area's ranking in household income.
Also, Florida falls short in producing college graduates in engineering and technology fields when compared to other states. While that was true a dozen years ago, the science-graduate lag has been accentuated in recent years as technology and globalization play larger roles in the job market, said David Denslow, an economist at the University of Florida.
"Florida has not prepared most of its young people for these challenges," Denslow said. "Even the ones who have Florida college degrees probably sat through many large classes and studied less than earlier generations. "
Some labor activists say Florida's leaders are partially to blame for giving tax breaks to corporations instead of investing more money in education, Medicaid expansion and public transportation.
"It seems to me it's by design," said Stephanie Porta, executive director of Organize Now, which recently advocated for sick leave pay in Orange County. "Our elected leadership's priority is making corporations rich at the expense of the middle class in Florida."
A spokeswoman for the state Department of Economic Opportunity says a drop of 4 percentage points in Florida's unemployment rate since December 2010 shows the state is moving in the right direction. An agency economic development program that gives tax refunds to companies that locate in Florida is designed to attract high-wage jobs in targeted industries, said Jessica Sims, the agency's press secretary.
"Every new job is a good job and can lead to a better job," Sims said in an email.
St. Johns County, a golf mecca near Jacksonville, had Florida's highest household income at more than $61,000. It was followed by Santa Rosa County in the Panhandle ($61,000) and Seminole County in metro Orlando (almost $55,000). The counties with the lowest household income were primarily in rural areas: Putnam ($34,025), Highlands ($34,733) and Hernando ($36,515) counties. The Census release only looked at counties with a population greater than 65,000 residents.
The Census released a host of other data sets that showed: