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Chair's Blog

Regaining middle-income jobs is critical to regional growth and equity May 2015
By Debbie Kitchin

Middle-income job loss is a national phenomenon, and also hits home right here in the Portland-metro region. Earlier this month, we released our latest Value of Jobs report, which takes a deep look at middle-income job loss in the Portland-metro region from 1980-2013. The report looks at what has happened to middle-income jobs over time, where they are located in the region, where people who hold those jobs live, and what a decline in these jobs means for our economic vitality and for the region’s workers compared to those in similar U.S. metro areas.

While Portland-metro has recovered jobs lost during the recession, this study shows us that jobs and incomes in the middle aren’t coming back as quickly. The result is that jobs at the top and bottom ends of the wage scale have grown faster than middle-income jobs in Portland-metro and, as a result, middle-income jobs, as a percentage of the region’s overall jobs base have declined from 69 percent in 1980 to 57 percent in 2013. (For details, and to see how we defined middle-income jobs, go to www.valueofjobs.com).

Middle-income jobs historically are the backbone of any economy. They support families and provide a step from poverty to prosperity for immigrants and underserved populations. That is why I consider this an equity issue. In Portland, we talk a lot about equity, and I believe there is a sincere shared commitment about addressing issues that have resulted in persistent poverty for so many underserved communities. In my view, the critical factor for economic equity is access to a good job, and, for most families, that usually starts with access to middle-income jobs.

We need a concerted effort to grow our middle-income job sectors, and then we need to make sure there is a pathway to those jobs for people who have been left behind in terms of economic prosperity. Our report lists a number of factors that support middle-income job development, but I will say the first – and most important – factor in my mind is having elected leaders who are ready and willing to say yes to jobs, even when the politics get dicey. I get discouraged when I see discussions like the one we are having now around the proposed Pembina propane project, which could get shut down before it even has a fair hearing before Portland City Council. Certainly, the 800 construction workers who would have been employed at that project should have an opportunity to tell Portland’s leaders that their middle-income jobs should count.

Another aspect of our report that is getting a lot of attention is our look at home affordability in Portland-metro.  A neighborhood-by-neighborhood analysis in the report showed that, with a few exceptions, the region’s core has no home ownership opportunities for households earning less than $70,000, which essentially prices many middle-income households out of the market. Certainly, we don’t want Portland to become a place where only high-income families can afford to buy a home, so the report’s finding should be cause for concern and action as we look at factors that impact home affordability.

All in all, this was one of our most interesting Value of Jobs reports, as is indicated by the media attention we got. I urge you to spend some time with it and take a look at the trends we’ve documented. And then join us in our work to ensure Portland-metro is a region where middle-class families can thrive and home affordability is still possible.

To read the full Value of jobs report on middle-income jobs, visit www.valueofjobs.com.
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