Florida’s Gray Belt Giving a Glimpse of America’s Future

In Citrus County, Florida, more than one-third of the residents are senior citizens which is one of the highest rates in the country. However, in just fifteen years over one-quarter of the state will be 65 years old or older. Seeing how Citrus County operates now is giving policy makers and researchers a glimpse into the future of how the entire country will look in just a couple of decades.

A Look at Citrus County

Billboards across the county advertise home health care services, and health care is the dominating labor force for people still working. In addition, lawyers and doctors make house calls, and elderly citizens that can still get around use the county minivan system to be transported to and from the store.

Other services provided by the county also differ from the norm. The library offers free seminars on Medicaid planning, and voters are very active even though the majority participates through the absentee system. With these services provided by the county, the senior citizens are much more engaged and active within the community, but the trade-off is that the economy is supported mainly through low-skill jobs.

A Catch-22

Research in Citrus County and other areas with high populations of elderly citizens show that these voters are not typically excited to vote for school funding or other initiatives that benefit younger generations. For example, Citrus County voted to reject a referendum to raise property taxes in order to better fund schools. Having an older population also makes it difficult to attract younger families to fill the service jobs that are required for an older population, and health care jobs make up more than one-third of the jobs in the county.

It is not just the economy that has issues retaining younger people. Churches in the county have struggled to maintain congregations as older members move to be near family or pass away. At the same time, any changes suggested to attract younger church goers is often met with resistance.

The Growing Gray Belt

Citrus County is only one of eight counties in Florida around Orlando and Tampa Bay that is considered the “Gray Belt” of the south. It has the oldest populations in Florida and one of the oldest across the nation. This area looks to be the most elderly area in the country for decades to come, and by 2030 these counties will have senior populations that make up one-third to one-half of their residents. Other states like North Dakota, Michigan, and Texas have their own growing gray belts, but those are attributed more to younger residents leaving and not older residents moving in.

The key issue for states facing a shift in the average age of the population will be balancing the voting concerns of the younger and older generations. With such high participation rates in the elderly population, researchers and policy makers expect to see states with growing gray belts to become less invested in education or transportation and more invested in issues of healthcare and insurance.

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