The gap between rich and poor is widening in the suburbs ringing Tampa even as it narrows slightly in the city, an analysis of new Census figures show.
The widening income gap has hit wealthy and poor communities alike, with some of the biggest changes happening in places that saw some of the most dramatic growth over the last decade.
While the national "Occupy" protests have staked their claims in central cities, including Tampa's Curtis Hixson Waterfront Park, suburban residents are seeing effects of growing income disparity, as well.
Lately, that can mean panhandlers in the median outside shopping malls.
"Out here, there was no such thing as poor," said Joe Stewart, 24, as he shot hoops on a basketball court near his home outside Brandon in eastern Hillsborough County.
"Now, there's places I would consider ghettos."
Elizabeth Kneebone, a researcher with the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution, has been studying recent trends in poverty.
Using census estimates, she determined the Tampa metropolitan area – which includes Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties – has nearly 423,000 residents living in poverty, 69 percent of them in the suburbs.
That comes close to the suburbs' share of the overall population, 75 percent, meaning their economic profiles are moving closer to those in the cities.
"Since the collapse of the housing market, poverty has been growing, particularly in the suburbs," Kneebone said.
It's a pattern playing out nationwide.
Kneebone's work shows that suburban communities now face a growing demand for social services aimed at the poor. But those services – including public transit and food banks – are often hard to access in the far-flung suburbs, she said.
Beyond that, unincorporated areas lack the taxing power or governmental authority to provide the social safety net available in cities, Steiner said.
In the Tampa Bay area, the causes of suburban poverty are many.
The mix of reasons includes foreclosures and job losses driving down incomes while high gas prices and urban gentrification encourage more middle-class growth in the city, said Ruth Steiner, a professor of urban planning at the University of Florida.
"The challenge of sorting this out is you've got to consider the evolution of neighborhoods," Steiner said.
In recent years, that evolution has brought more poverty to the suburbs, long the bastion of middle-class stability. As a result, the gap between rich and poor in places like Bloomingdale and Westchase in Hillsborough County and Land O' Lakes in Pasco County has begun to widen, making those areas look more like urban centers.
Southeast of Brandon, the community of Bloomingdale is far from a ghetto. But the region has been stung by the bursting housing bubble.
Bloomingdale's median income plummeted by nearly a quarter and its income gap widened by about the same amount between 2007 and 2010, one of the highest rates of change in the state, according to the Census Bureau.
The area remains wealthy – the median income is more than $70,000 – but the decline has been sharp.
A few miles to the west, the poorer Palm River-Clair Mel area saw its income gap grow nearly as much as Bloomingdale's.
Palm River-Clair Mel's median income grew thanks to the rise of households making $200,000 or more. But this upward trend was dragged down by a 20 percent increase in the number of households at the bottom of the scale, those making less than $10,000.
It's a different story in Tampa, where the rich-poor gap narrowed slightly as the number of households making more than $200,000 fell and the number of households making $100,000 grew.
When the dust settled, the city's median income actually grew, according to the Census Bureau.
Tampa's change was different from Orlando's, which also saw its income gap narrow even as its median income fell, census figures show.
Naples, in southwest Florida, where nearly 40 percent of households make more than $100,000 a year, has the widest income gap of any community in the U.S. Next in line are Beverly Hills, Calif., and Morgantown, W.Va.
In these income shifts, Steiner at the University of Florida sees a continuing pattern of middle-class families abandoning the suburbs for close-in city neighborhoods like Seminole Heights or Hyde Park.
A key reason, she said, is transportation costs.
"Once gas prices went up in 2008, anybody who could afford to move probably did."