Maybe the people aren’t the problem: an alternate take on Portland-area wages

Betsy Hammond has a story up on OregonLive today reporting on a study released by a Portland-area business group, the “Value of Jobs Coalition“, which concludes, in part, that Portland metro area wages are being depressed by an overabundance of college graduates who are either, or both, working in lower paying jobs or for fewer hours than their compatriots in other cities. As reported in the article, the authors of the study frame these findings as signs of a broken or underperforming economy. While acknowledging that there is a question to be asked as to whether this “problem” is largely the result of economic conditions or merely the aggregation of individual choices, what is also clear is that, for the authors and the quoted economists and business figures, there is something inherently aberrant about Portland’s relatively lower wages and fewer people in higher paying jobs (read: STEM and finance).

Not surprisingly, given the current context for discussions of this nature, the study emphasizes that Portland is home to “an extra-large population of humanities [and social science] majors”, and that workers in the city disproportionately hold jobs or have careers in fields like art, design and media, at least in comparison to other places, where there are higher numbers of people in higher paying professions and occupations such as those in business and health.

To me, there is one substantive effect of this pattern of employment and the associated lower wages identified in the article, and that is a reduced ability to pay for services from lower income tax revenues.

However, not only does this contention elide the fundamental problems we have with the tax system in Oregon, the most salient being state-wide property tax limitations that already make funding local services difficult, but there is also the larger question, unasked in the OregonLive report, of whether the problem here isn’t so much with individuals choosing to major in the humanities and social sciences and taking relatively lower paying jobs to live in Portland, but with a political and economic system that is tied to an assumption that wages should go up, or that the point of getting a college education is to maximize one’s personal income (by way of illustration, the article concludes with a quote from Sandra McDonough, president of the Portland Business Alliance, exhorting the city to, “get strategic to get more people with finance, management, science, technology, engineering and math. We are short in these key areas that are moneymaking areas”).

The research that I did with my subjects and informants for Comic Book City offers some insight into how this study appears to miss, or ignore, certain nuances to the Portland economy and why the city attracts the kind of college graduates and professionals it does, while perhaps being less attractive to people looking to “make it big”, where that primarily means lots of money, but also fame and advancement.

As implied by Amy Vilet, the Oregon Employment Department Economist quoted at OregonLive, Portland is a relatively low cost of living location. Not only does the comparative data cited in the study include substantially higher cost locations like New York, thereby skewing the wage comparison, but the underlying point is that you don’t need to make as much money to live decently in Portland as you do in many other cities.

Among the writers and artists I surveyed and interviewed, most made mention of being able to do things like buy a house or go out to eat regularly while still working in a modestly paying field like comics, or in a “day job” that affords them time and energy for writing and drawing, or that is fulfilling in its own right.

Furthermore, it also seems clear that among those individuals choosing to stay in the city, material reward and advancement are not primary values. While no one expressed a desire to live an ascetic life, being able to have satisfying work and time and opportunity to participate in community and non-work related interests are values that the people I spoke with seem to hold over and above standard measures of “success”. These findings are consistent with what researchers at the Portland-based Artisan Economy Initiative have also found in their investigations of the cultural and economic lives of the city’s “extra-large population of humanities majors”. Indeed, I would recommend Charles Heying’s book, Brew to Bikes: Portland’s Artisan Economy (Ooligan Press, 2010) for a different view of how Portland’s economy works to the one underlying the OregonLive report. I’ve embedded an excerpt from Comic Book City below that features Heying and co-researcher Shanna Eller addressing this question of “values” for Portland’s community of artisan producers.

While Hammond’s article includes recognition that, for many in the city’s multitudes of humanities and social science majors, job and career satisfaction is just as or more important than earning potential (though, to be sure, this is viewed as part of the problem with the city’s economy, if not seen as being outright perverse), my research suggests that, for some at least, this kind of thinking also extends to the “luxuries” they want from where they live.

Repeatedly, the individuals I surveyed and spoke with indicated that being able to live well without relying on, or even owning, a car is a primary reason for choosing to be in Portland. While in one sense this is a reflection of the values noted above, in another sense, for someone on a career path unlikely to result in higher average wages, not owning a car is also an economically rational choice, as is living in a place that makes that choice possible. According to AAA, in 2012, the average cost of owning a car in the U.S. was $8946/year, which roughly translates to $745.50/month. For anyone looking to work in a field with modest average pay or that entails working freelance, that is a significant expense to be spared or mitigated.

That Portland affords individuals alternate forms of compensation, some material, some not, and that’s why many who choose to live there are attracted to the city, suggests that seeing a dichotomy between a) an economy that forces individuals to accept lower hours and pay and b) an economy that simply reflects individual choices may be an overly simplistic framing of the city’s workforce.

As cited on OregonLive, I have no doubt that there are individuals who are frustrated by what they see as too low hours and pay, but it also appears to be the case that many of these same individuals nonetheless choose to remain in the city. Some are likely tied by circumstance, health, family, but for others, quality of life considerations probably offset, or trump, such frustrations. In other words, it is possible that some people are both “forced” into lower paying jobs and also willing to accept such jobs in order to stay in Portland. None of the comics creators I spoke with were purely concerned with the income potentials of their jobs or careers or with their personal finances. I have a hard time imagining any of the individuals featured in the film moving away simply because they thought they could earn higher wages someplace else.

The puzzle for growth-advocates, and I think you see this reflected in Hammond’s article, is that the structure of Portland’s economy seems to be largely the product of market forces, but with results that contradict the assumptions of mainstream economic development models that place a priority on rising wages, both for urban economies and for individuals. What the Value of Jobs Coalition seems to represent is an organized effort to pushback against an actually existing economy where many individuals simply don’t care about the usual metrics of economic vitality or success.

I don’t want to overstate the significance of Portland’s difference or uniqueness in this regard, the city is still part of the global capitalist economy and the base fundamentals of the local economy are little different from anywhere else in the U.S., but at the same time the city does appear to be filling a niche, and successfully, for people who want at least marginally different things from the typical American dream of big job, big house, and big car. What or why you would want to see that as a problem to be fixed is beyond me.

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