Cruise up coastal highway A1A. Take in the sea breeze, the sand and surf shimmering in the sun, the palm trees swaying beside luxury high-rise hotels, shops and cafes. The idyllic image helps explain why millions have come to Florida to play, and millions have come back to stay.
Drive a few blocks inland — past fading strip malls and fast-food joints — and a jolting new reality emerges. The parking lot of a career counseling center along Oakland Park Boulevard is jammed. There aren't enough counselors to advise hundreds of jobless people who come through the doors every day.
Last month came the most jaw-dropping announcement of all: The state that made population growth the linchpin of its economy for more than 60 years lost a net 58,000 people this year, according to newly released estimates for April 1.
"It's the end of an era," says Robert Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. "Florida represents an entire postwar vision of the good life — palm trees, low cost and no taxes, just easy living. They could turn it around, but in the short haul, it's paradise lost."
Florida isn't attracting retirees at nearly the rate it used to. Nor is it drawing young people the way it once did because jobs have dried up. The state's twin economic engines — tourism and construction — are sputtering. Now, Florida's leaders are pushing hard to develop industries that will create high-paying jobs in fields such as alternative energy and bioscience.
"The time is long past when Florida's economy can be based on waiting at the Welcome Center with a glass of free orange juice and a real estate map," says state Sen. Don Gaetz, a Republican. "We have to do far better than that. … We are learning a great deal from the difficulties we're undergoing."
The recession has had a measurable impact on the traditionally mobile USA by forcing more Americans to stay put because they can't sell their homes or find new jobs. Its outsized effect on this dynamic Sun Belt state of 18.3 million is reshaping migration and settlement patterns across the nation.
It also could help redraw the electoral map once congressional seats are reapportioned after the 2010 Census. Now that Florida's population is shrinking, the state is unlikely to win another seat in Congress and some other states may be less likely to lose one, according to standard reapportionment formulas.
Florida has been a magnet for so long that when it stops drawing people, demographic ripples are felt elsewhere. "It affects us because people aren't moving there from somewhere else," Lang says. "New Jersey stays bigger. Pennsylvania stays bigger. New York stays bigger."
For more than a half-century, Florida had been the dream destination for millions of Americans. Affordable housing in a fast-growing state, no state income tax, a sunny climate and the advent of air conditioning attracted a steady stream of retirees, sun-seekers and fortune hunters. Now, not so much: