Strong growth masks troubling trend

January 25, 2017

Christian Kaylor, an economist with the Oregon Employment Department

Multnomah County’s economy is strong, anchored by a metropolitan boom in high-paying jobs for professionals with advanced skills. Portland’s job growth, at 10 percent over the past two years, is second fastest among the nation’s 50 largest cities, behind Miami.

Unemployment has dropped to 3.5 percent -- the lowest in a generation.

And median household incomes in Portland are growing faster than any other big city except Seattle and Austin, and a rate 7 times that of the national average.

“This is one of the most fascinating places in America,” Christian Kaylor, an economist with the Oregon Employment Department, told the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners Tuesday in a briefing on the county’s economic health. “We see this incredible amount of economic growth that makes us a superstar. Then the mystery begins.”

Jobs and wealth are growing, but the population hasn’t kept pace, and Kaylor suspects that one population is displacing another: as the wealthy, educated class moves in, the poor  -- who are disproportionately people of color -- move out.

“The cruel irony is that, in the shadow of this economic growth, there is crushing structural poverty,” he said. It’s a classic tale of economic divide. And that divide is growing - increasingly along racial lines.

Households with incomes greater than $100,000 grew by 50 percent over the past five years, while households making less than $35,000 declined by 20 percent. But the middle class -- households making between $50,000 and $75,000 -- barely moved with 2-percent growth.

About 22 percent of full-time workers who are White made less than $30,000 a year, while 40 percent of full-time workers who are people of color made less than $30,000.

The fastest growing sectors, over the last ten years in the Portland region, are low wage jobs ($21,000 for the average hospitality position) and the high wage jobs ($133,000 for the average high tech manufacturing position), growing at 18 percent and 13 percent respectively. Middle wage jobs are dragging at 3 percent.

Construction and manufacturing jobs, a staple of middle-class workers without a college degree, have shrunk in the past 10 years along with the median wage of workers with only a high school diploma.

“This is the biggest story in the U.S. economy today,” Kaylor told the board.

Today some of the wealthiest census tracts in the state share borders with some of the poorest, both extremes in Multnomah County. In fact, he said, just as many people live in poverty in east Multnomah County as in 17 of Oregon’s less-populated counties combined. But the wealth in the west part of the county masks the need in the east, making the entire county ineligible for some federal and state poverty grant programs.

“If you wanted to direct an anti-poverty program in the state of Oregon, ground zero is East Portland,” he said. “The data is extremely clear.”