Commentary

Commuters show the ties that bind Escambia, Santa Rosa counties.

We vote with our feet.

People choose to live in places that offer an affordable combination of important things. For some, that might be good schools or a military-friendly neighborhood. For others it might be a golf course or the shoreline, while others might value easy access to work or family or shopping, or a yard and a picket fence. Everyone likes safe streets.

Today, cheap transportation, including good road infrastructure, makes it quick and easy to live a distance from work, school or shopping. One look at a map shows these choices. The American Community Survey, which is run by the U.S. Census Bureau, asks Americans about where they live and where they work, and recently published a table of county-to-county commuting flows averaged over the 2009-2013 period.

— Some 90 percent of the 131,697 Escambia commuters work in Escambia. Some 5,966 work in Santa Rosa, while 1,788 work in Baldwin County, Ala., and 1,203 in Okaloosa County.

—For Santa Rosa commuters, the story is different. Only 49 percent of 66,275 total commuters work in Santa Rosa, while 20,296 work in Escambia, and 10,263 in Okaloosa.

— About 1,236 Okaloosa commuters work in either Escambia or Santa Rosa County, as do about 2,973 Baldwin County, Ala., commuters. In contrast, some 15,392 Baldwin commuters work in Mobile County, while 4,934 Okaloosa commuters work in Walton County.

It is Escambia and Santa Rosa that are economically inseparable; hey will succeed or fail together.

Santa Rosa has become an increasingly popular place to live over time, and that trend is projected to continue. Five-year population projections are also available from the Census Bureau. Those estimates show Santa Rosa growing a cumulative 8.1 percent over the 2014 – 2019 period, while Escambia is projected to grow by 2.6 percent.

These differences show up in the housing market as well.

The median year of construction for a home in Santa Rosa is 1993, which is 11 years younger than the median year of construction for the housing stock in Escambia.

Higher income commuters tend to occupy these newer homes. The median household income for full-time residents in Santa Rosa in 2014 was $61,084, while it was $45,616 in Escambia. Partly because house sizes have been growing over time, partly because of higher household incomes, and partly because of demand for other amenities, Santa Rosa home values have also been higher. The Census Bureau reports that in 2014, the median house value was $180,111 in Santa Rosa, versus $133,989 in Escambia.

If we dive deeper and look at smaller areas with our two counties, the picture is a bit more complex.

If we look at the 71 census tracts in Escambia, and the 25 census tracts in Santa Rosa, differences emerge. The census tract with the highest median household income in the two-county area is Perdido Key, at $91,152.

Pensacola Beach registers the highest median house value, at $383,061, although only 21 percent of those homes are owner-occupied.

In Santa Rosa, the highest median household income is found in 10812, at $79,793, while the highest median house value is $282,509, and 71.5 percent of those homes are owner-occupied.

Escambia also has the greater share of poverty.

In Santa Rosa, only two tracts show a median household income of less than $42,000, while Escambia has 27. Escambia has 16 tracts where the share of households who both have children at home and live in poverty is greater than 15 percent.

Santa Rosa has none, and only two tracts that measure greater than 10 percent.

It used to be that people could live their lives in a small town where the well-to-do and the less-well-off lived in proximity. Over the years, U.S. residents have increasingly sorted themselves into neighborhoods with others of similar economic status, but within a larger economic community.

The same is true here.

Our two counties, and the very different neighborhoods within them, are part of an integrated whole. The best economic progress we could make would be to all rise together.

This calls for improving education outcomes, associated workplace skills, and thus quality of economic life, across all of our neighborhoods.

Dr. Rick Harper serves as senior research fellow with the Studer Community Institute, a Pensacola, Florida-based organization that seeks citizen-powered solutions to challenges the community faces. He also serves as associate vice president for research and economic opportunity at the University of West Florida in Pensacola.