Many Polk County residents are employed full-time but in low-wage jobs that don't pay enough to cover basic needs. | Valeria Boltneva, Pexels

The GiveWell Community Foundation and United Way of Central Florida have announced the results of a two-year study that used focus groups, data analysis and a survey of 2,100 Polk County residents to identify the community’s most pressing challenges. Affordable housing, competitive wages, reliable transportation, education and mental health care came in at the top of the list.

“This effort started in 2021,” said Callie Neslund, Givewell’s president and CEO.   

The pair of nonprofits hired Q-Q Consultants to conduct the survey last year. The 184-page United Community Needs Assessment report was released publicly last week.

The UCNA identified needs and assets that impact the lives of Polk County residents in six domains:

  • Economic and employment opportunities
  • Housing
  • Education
  • Food security
  • Transportation and infrastructure
  • Quality of life

“In addition to those major areas, the UCNA also identified a foundational issue contributing to local needs: economic barriers for residents,” Neslund said.

The report noted that Polk County is the fastest-growing county in Florida and the seventh fastest-growing in the nation, with 725,046 residents as of the 2020 census. Between 2010 and 2020, the population in Polk County grew by 20.4%, and isn’t slowing down. In addition, by 2030, almost half the population is estimated to be made up of minority racial/ethnic groups.

The greatest population growth is anticipated among the 18-and-under age group, underscoring the need for education and childcare services.

A Living Wage

More than half (53%) of Lakeland’s 96,174 residents within the city limits are referred to as ALICE — Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed —  what’s commonly called the working poor.

“When households do not earn a living wage, families are typically forced to make tough decisions and forego certain essentials, substantially impacting the quality of life,” the report reads. “Given the low wages in many industries and the rising cost of living in Polk County, more than half of the households are below the federal poverty level and ALICE thresholds. The number of families not earning enough to meet basic needs is cause for concern.”

“The minimum sustainable living wage for a family of four is estimated to be $91,360, which is considerably higher than the median family income of $59,623.”

united community needs assessment, 2023

The reports shows many of the current wages earned by residents are below the amount needed for self-sufficiency. In addition, several industries in which many residents are employed pay wages below the Florida average.

“Many young professionals and recent graduates are looking to Tampa and Orlando for employment as wages are higher in those areas,” the report shows.

The median household income in Polk County in 2021 was $51,535. In Tampa, it was $60,000 and in Orlando it was $59,000. But the report shows that 44.2% of those working in Polk County earn less than $50,000 a year – and 30.4% earn less than $35,000 a year. More than 38% of Polk County children, 20% of adults and 15.8% of seniors live in poverty.

“Creating opportunities for residents to earn a wage equal to a living wage is key to improving the happiness and quality of life of county residents,” the report said. “Several residents were concerned that wages have not kept up with inflation or the rising cost of housing, and the gap widening between the affluent and those in poverty. While residents felt jobs were available, they believed these jobs to be primarily low paying in the warehouse and service sectors. As a result of the low wages, residents believe businesses have trouble filling vacant positions, and those who take these positions cannot afford basic living expenses.”

While the median income can provide a fairly good quality of life for one person, it is a struggle to sustain a family with children on it. The report states that a living wage for a family of four in our area is considered to be $91,360. In Polk, the median family income is $59,623.

And while some say warehouse work is low-paying, it is actually driving people out of even lower-paying, but much-needed, fields like childcare center workers and truck drivers. The Amazon Fulfillment Center on County Line Road has a starting salary of $15-$16 an hour for a fulfillment associate, with evening and night shifts paying $2-$3 more an hour. Health insurance, retirement benefits, and paid vacation are also offered, along with college tuition reimbursement for full-time workers.

“Amazon doubled its presence in Polk County in 2020 and is now one of the top 25 employers in the county,” the report states. “Amazon’s ability to offer higher wage rates than other companies offering similar jobs is impacting local businesses that are having trouble raising wages to recruit employees. Participants commented that competitive salaries have cost other industries, as employees are leaving lower-paying jobs to take advantage of the higher wages. Participants also shared that housing and childcare have become so expensive that it makes it difficult for employers to attract talent due to the gap between wages and the cost of living.’

And the lower wages in Polk County aren’t just impacting the low-income sector.

“I am an attorney by trade and can tell you that I make about $50,000 less than my colleagues in Tampa/Orlando (but I still have the same…living costs),” one focus group participant responded.

In addition, remote working is also affecting the job market. The report notes that, before COVID, an employer might get 100 applicants for a job, but now they’re only receiving 20 resumes because the job market is so competitive.

“A lot of them are remote and you can live in Lakeland and work for a company in Palo Alto if you want,” it states. “So we’re no longer just competing with the I-4 corridor, but we’re competing with the entire nation.”

Affordable Housing

A chart in the report shows that someone earning nearly $16 an hour has a maximum affordable rent of $789 a month, but in May 2022, the median rent in Polk was estimated to be $1,503 a month – or $18,036 a year — an increase of 42.5% from the median rent two years earlier of $1,055. 

At least 30% of Polk County residents qualify as “housing-cost burdened,” meaning they are paying more than 30% of their monthly income on rent or mortgage. A significantly higher percentage of renters are considered housing-cost burdened than owners.

“The housing is affordable for people outside of Florida, and so they’re moving here because it’s affordable for them. But it’s not affordable for us who live here,” one respondent wrote. “And a personal story, my house has doubled in worth, and no, I could not afford my house now, and so I have a realtor that has been calling me over and over again. She has three people from three different states that could buy my house right now. And I told her, ‘Where would I go?’”

Another participant said: “Everybody’s raising their rent so dramatically, and then that is creating a crisis as well.”

But even buying a home is a struggle because outside investors are snapping up properties.

“I have a girlfriend that’s made 36 offers and yet to get a home…. And that’s what my realtor keeps telling me, is, ‘You’re not competing against your friend. You’re competing against either outside investment groups that are turning around and either using them for rental properties and/or vacation properties…’” they said. “And so as a home seller, you’re going to take whatever the highest offer is because you got to turn around and buy something.”

Finding an affordable home is a challenge for many Polk families. | Cottonbro Studio, Pexels

“Residents are very concerned with the rapid increase in costs associated with renting and homeownership over the past two years.”

united community needs assessment, 2023

In some of the more drastic scenarios, the skyrocketing rental and mortgage prices are forcing people to live in cars, campgrounds and motels. There is a growing rate of those experiencing homelessness in the community and a lack of adequate supports to meet their need. People who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless can call the homeless coalition in Lakeland and be put on a list for help.

“Some people can be on the list for years, and that’s just based on the amount of service providers we have,” a respondent wrote. “If they’re an at-risk individual, they will get referred out to get their rent paid for a certain amount of time. So that list right now looks like about 1,100 people, both at risk and literally homeless. The literally homeless are closer to the 600 and at risk around the 500 … we have the same few agencies who are providers, and they only have so much capacity to provide. We don’t have any shelters outside of Lakeland, I don’t believe.”

Food Security

Several census tracts in Polk County have been designated “food deserts” by the United States Department of Agriculture and, the report states, it is likely that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing prices and stagnant wages will soon exacerbate this issue.

In 2021, it was estimated that 40,977 households (14.8%) in Polk County qualified for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP or food stamps, in the past 12 months. In addition, 81% of Polk County Public Schools students were considered economically disadvantaged and eligible to participate in the free and reduced-price lunch program – although all PCPS students receive free breakfasts.

“The primary barrier to obtaining affordable, healthy food is that costs are too high.”

united community needs assessment, 2023

“Most residents agree that food insecurity is a problem in their community, but they recognize that their community leaders have been working hard to address the issue,” the report stated. “Residents noted that coordination between resources and publicizing of resources could be improved. The primary barrier to accessing resources has been cited as transportation, with many unable to reach the available resources during limited operating hours due to a lack of affordable transportation options.”

And the overwhelming majority, almost 90%, said the number one barrier to healthy food is that the cost is too high.

GiveWell’s Neslund said that while the county has “gotten good at distributing food to people, nobody’s coming off the rolls.”


Respondents and focus group participants noted that a lack of access to affordable, reliable transportation can limit a person’s ability to access basic needs for their family. Transportation issues have been cited as a primary concern among Polk County residents, as it impacts several areas of life, including access to employment, food, education, and healthcare.

“Most residents believe more public transportation options are needed to help low-income residents get to the places they need to go,” the report stated.

But a focus group respondent noted that there is no bus service to warehouse areas.

“More public transportation options are needed to help low-income residents get to the places they need to go.”

united community needs assessment, 2023

“The transportation aspect is something that we’ve been dealing with for a long time,” the respondent said. “We’ve been having this conversation ad nauseum because it got so bad that employment agencies were literally going down (applicant’s addresses) to say, ‘I got you a job at (X company) … So, if I got you a job, then can your neighbor come to work, too, because y’all be carpooling together?’”

Because so many don’t have cars or aren’t on a bus route, they walk or bike to work.  But even that is fraught with danger. Polk County is 12th in the state in pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities and serious injuries.

Driving to work is also dangerous. Polk County was ranked fourth in Florida with regard to the average annual traffic fatality rate and 10th in average annual serious injuries.

“Residents have concerns about the recent population growth and development in Polk County and the strain it will put on the transportation system,” the report states. “Residents are already concerned about traffic congestion and road maintenance.”

For those who need to work from home and live in a rural area … good luck.

“Most residents agree that while there is access to the internet, it can be unreliable in many areas and unaffordable for low-income residents,” the report notes.

Tom Phillips, executive director of Citrus Connection, the county’s public transit system, has seen some transportation expanded, but voters shot down a half-cent sales tax to fund a major expansion several years ago.

“Public transit needs to be fast and frequent in Polk County to combat our suburban poverty,” Phillips said in a text to LkldNow. “Low unemployment doesn’t matter if you can’t (make) rent and own a car.  We have an affordable housing crisis that’s made worse by a lack of transit.  As the fastest growing county in the fastest growing state, it’s time for transit.” 


One group of residents who have access to free public transportation are the area’s students, including elementary, secondary and college/technical school students.

It is a population that continues to grow – with no end in sight.  There are at least 110,000 students in 150 public schools.

Residents were positive about the availability of K-12 school choice options and industry certification programs at the high school level, along with post-high school education options overall.

“I think our schools are doing a really good job or a better job of teaching the younger generation that there are opportunities,” one focus group participant said. “We have a lot of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) schools. We have a lot of academies that are available to the kids. There’s choice schools … I’ve seen a lot of kids graduate from those classes that typically would’ve … not even made it through high school, but now they’re in a nursing class or … a fire school or something like that.”

Graduation rates of high school students have remained stable over the last five years and are slightly lower than that of the State.

“Residents are most concerned with the lack of quality preschool, summer and after-school programs … (and) teacher staffing shortages.”

united community needs assessment, 2023

But residents are concerned about the lack of quality preschool and after-school programs, along with teacher staffing shortages, especially in early childhood programs. And that has led to the consequence of a declining number of students not being ready to enter kindergarten. While kindergarten readiness rates have decreased statewide, the decrease was greater in Polk County than at the state level.

“This is concerning because the kindergarten readiness rates in Polk County were already lower than that of the state,” the report states.

The most recent data available for this indicator from the Florida Department of Education are from 2019-20 through 2021-22. All children in Florida are assessed using the Florida Kindergarten Readiness Screener (FLKRS). A score of 500 or higher on the Star Early Literacy assessment administered to kindergarten students during the first 30 days of the school year indicates a student is “ready for kindergarten.” Data from 2021-22 shows that the rate of kindergarten readiness among Polk County children in PCPS was 41%, lower than the State-level estimate of 50%. This represents a decline from 2019-20, in which the rate of kindergarten readiness among Polk County children was 46%.

Statistics show that those who struggle early in their academic career have a hard time catching up.

Quality of Life

Residents’ perceptions about their quality of life vary among Polk County residents.

“Overall, the majority of Polk County residents are generally happy with where they live, believe their communities to be well-maintained, and believe their community is a good place to raise children,” the report states.  “Though a third of respondents believe crime to be a major concern. Residents also agree they have suitable access to outdoor, leisure, and parks, and activities promoting culture and the arts and that there is a high community engagement among residents.”

Almost three-quarters of residents (72%) agreed that people in their community are accepting of different backgrounds, ethnicities, races, religions, and lifestyles. However, only 52% of the residents agreed that people in their community treat everyone the same regardless of how much money they make.

As with a Polk Vision report from 2020, behavioral health, including mental health and substance abuse, was identified as the number one priority health issue by stakeholders.

“Mental health includes emotional, psychological, and social well-being and helps determine how individuals handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices,” the report noted.

There were 18,913 seriously mentally ill adults in Polk County in 2018 and 600,569 in Florida. They are those suffering from major depression, bi-polar disorder, and/or schizophrenia.

Access to mental health care is a challenge in Polk County. To illustrate, ratios of mental health providers to residents are lower in Polk than in Florida, and some residents are not receiving the services they need.

The national benchmark for mental health providers to the population is one provider for every 310 people. Polk County has one for every 1,190. In Hardee County, which has a much smaller population than Polk, there are four licensed mental health counselors – two work in the schools and two work at the jail.

Polk County has been designated as a Health Care Professional Shortage Area for primary care, mental health, and dental health by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). Provider rates and ratios in Polk County are much lower than in the rest of the state. Common barriers include:

  • Inaccessible hours
  • Lack of adequate transportation
  • Lack of childcare
  • Language and cultural barriers
  • Low health literacy

Alarmingly, the rate of hospitalizations for mental healthcare has increased for young adults, those in the 19-21 age group, and is higher for Hispanic and Black residents.  Threat and risk assessments have increased at schools in the area.

Two-thirds of residents in Polk reported experiencing at least one adverse childhood event (ACE) before age 18, which puts them at risk for poorer health outcomes. ACEs are potentially traumatic events that occur before the age of 18, such as experiencing physical or sexual violence or abuse, or physical or emotional neglect; witnessing violence in the home; and having a family member attempt or die by suicide. Approximately 23% of residents reported experiencing four or more ACEs during childhood, a significant percentage of the Polk County population.

“Mental illnesses are among the most common health conditions in the United States,” the report notes. “To prevent mental illness and promote good mental health, communities must create living conditions and environments that support mental health and allow people to adopt and maintain healthy lifestyles.”

According to the CHA, substance abuse is a major concern. Drug and alcohol abuse was rated the number one and number two most harmful behaviors to the community’s overall health in the Community Health Survey.

On June 1, out of 67 people making a first appearance in court for arrests in the previous 24 hours, 19 people were there for drug or alcohol charges.

Among Polk County middle schoolers, 5.2% admitted to current marijuana use, as did 19.4% of high school students, greater than the statewide rates  of 3.7% and 16.3%, respectively. While percentages of Florida middle and high school students who report current marijuana use have declined in recent years, percentages among Polk County middle and high school students have increased. Furthermore, the percentage of juvenile drug arrests in Polk County (5.3%) is greater than the percentage of juvenile drug arrests statewide (4.0%).

When asked about their own general well-being, a little more than half of the residents considered themselves “thriving,” while the majority of the remaining residents believed they were “struggling.”

Neslund said that while they can’t fund their way out of many of the issues discussed in the report, they can share the insights with policy makers. And that’s an important step.

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at or 863-272-9250.

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