Why Is Florida God’s Waiting Room?

Weather, taxes, marketing …

Senior citizens in Florida

Leading up to Tuesday’s Republican primary in Florida, Sen. John McCain sucked up to the 65-and-older crowd at The Villages retirement community by decrying the cost of prescription drugs. Mitt Romney went after the same age bracket by attacking the Arizona senator’s Medicare voting record. Senior citizens are a political force in the Sunshine State: 3 million of Florida’s 18.7 million residents are seniors, the densest concentration of elderly folk in the country. How’d Florida get to be so full of old people?

Good weather, effective marketing, low taxes, and a herd mentality. In the first half of the 20th century, the concept of moving to warmer climes upon retirement didn’t really exist—seniors generally lived with relatives to conserve funds. But the advent of Social Security payments in 1940, as well as the post-World War II economic boom, made it possible for grannies to live independently. During this same period, real-estate developers were buying up land in Florida (one of the least populated states in the South) and trying to capitalize on the region’s tropical climate. Boosters put together promotional videos touting the state as a “fountain of youth,” which they screened all across the northern United States. Seniors, flush with their Social Security checks, were among those who heeded the call.

Florida also made economic sense for retirees: The cost of living was low, and the legislature did its best to make homeownership affordable. In 1934, Floridians approved the Homestead Exemption Amendment, which eased the burden on homeowners by exempting property taxes on the first $5,000 of a permanent residence. In 1980, the legislature boosted the exemption to $25,000.

At first, the elderly migrated to cities like Miami and St. Petersburg. But in the ‘60s, big development groups began building gated communities, which lured seniors with amenities such as golf courses and sewing classes. Like the postwar boosters, these developers have focused on marketing. (For example, the chiasmus “We give years to your life and life to your years” draws residents to Century Village.) Some cities, worried that too much gray hair could damage their reputations, helped along the exodus to gated communities by making urban living less geriatric-friendly. In St. Petersburg, for example, city administrators removed the green public benches that had lined the sidewalks, ostensibly for aesthetic reasons, but also because they were popular with tired seniors.

Word-of-mouth within northern communities helped solidify Florida’s status as a retirement mecca. Before air travel became customary, pioneering New Yorkers took Interstate 95 straight to Miami, and Midwesterners took Interstate 75 to Tampa. Then they’d brag about the high life to friends back home and set off a stampede. Demographers call this phenomenon “chain migration.” It helps explain not only why Florida has remained so popular among retirees, but why (despite the ease of air travel) the state is still segmented according to northern geography, with New Yorkers in Palm Beach County and Detroiters in Naples.

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Explainer thanks Bob Leonard of Hillsborough Community College, Gary Mormino of the University of South Florida, and Thomas Rudczynski of Northwestern University.