Florida Keys Face 'Humanitarian Crisis' Amid Existing Poverty / by Yessenia Funes

The island chain off the southern coast of Florida is best known for its tourism, scuba diving and natural divinity. Personally, my first acquaintance with the Florida Keys was Key West, a '90s FOX comedy show that I never watched but always flicked past as I looked for my cartoons.

I've been to Florida just once, and that trip was to visit LEGOLAND, so the Florida Keys have always felt like some far-off paradise place. I have heard that they're beautiful though, so reading about the destruction there following Hurricane Irma is heartbreaking, to say the least. As I read accounts of the damage, from The Miami Herald or ABC, I couldn't help but wonder who lives in these islands. 

The Florida Keys make up more than 40 islands, most of which sit within Monroe County. They're the southern most point of the continental United States. More than 79,000 people live in the string of islands. To compare, Miami is home to about 453,000 people. Most of Monroe County is made up of white people: nearly 68 percent, according to Census numbers. The next major demographic is Latinxs. They make up 23 percent of the county. And 17.7 percent of the county is foreign-born aka immigrants. 

Florida is known for its high immigrant population. Monroe County represents the state fairly well. The major difference is its Black population, which is much smaller than the state's average. Cuban immigrants likely make up most of the county's immigrants. (Cubans are the largest immigrant population in the state.) After all, Cuba sits just 90 miles away from Key West, the southern most island in the chain. In 2016, 106 Cuban immigrants arrived to the islands in a single week.

But the Keys aren't just a place of diversity, serene ocean life and resiliency. They're also a place of poverty. A United Way study in 2014 found that though the official poverty rate for the Keys is around 12 percent, the number of people living close to poverty is much higher. The number is nearly 50 percent. That's if you account for families who fall into the so-called "ALICE" category (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed). 

“The people in this study as hard as they are working, all it would take is one emergency – a serious illness, an expensive car repair, a damaging storm — for them to spiral into poverty,” said United Way of the Florida Keys President Margie Smith, to The Keys Weekly.

That emergency has come.