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.

COMIC BOOK CITY updates: screenings & video excerpts on Vimeo

Since writing about “Finding an Audience“, I’ve added a new screening announcement and also have begun to post excerpts from the film, starting with the interviews I conducted with author Sara Ryan and artist Steve Lieber. You can view the inteviews below or on Vimeo.

 

Florida’s proposal to set tuition by major: crazy, yes, but also too close to home

At The Atlantic this week, Jordan Weissmann posted a story about a proposal in Florida to set tuition at state institutions according to major, with students choosing “high demand” fields earning a discount, while those choosing majors less in demand would pay more.

This is the kind of proposal that is easy to scoff at, and to write off as being the product of one place’s peculiar politics, but, in truth, the underlying logic is one I see at work everyday at my institution and in the Oregon University System more broadly.

Currently, for example, there are clear mandates to direct scarce resources for faculty hires towards departments with professional or pre-professional, or even just practical-sounding, majors. Meanwhile, faculty in departments with more traditional academic majors are forced to fight just to keep existing tenure lines, or to hire adjuncts to cover course releases and leave, let alone to supplement regular course offerings.

In considering the Florida proposal, Weissmann notes the difficulty in trying to peg what constitutes a “high demand” field and how to keep up with ongoing changes in labor markets. Whether setting student tuition or constructing programs and hiring faculty, playing the market seems like a foolish risk for colleges and universities, no matter how appealing it may sound to state legislators and governing boards. Systems risk sinking investments into fields of study that may or not be relevant a few years down the road, if they were ever relevant to begin with.

Like Weissmann, I can imagine a system of data collection to try to make these kinds of decisions be as economically rational as possible, but it seems equally likely that these decisions are or would be made for less grounded reasons, such as what appeals politically or some vague sense of what an employable major does or does not look like.

Taking faculty hires at Western as a case in point, I haven’t seen any indication that decisions about new programs and allocation of resources are being made with clear data on employer demand or the likelihood of finding employment after graduation. For the most part, these decisions seem to be driven by legislative mandates, which, as Weissmann puts it, are just as likely to be based on assumptions of, “Science: Good! English: Bad!”, as they are to be founded on thoughtful study, by what sounds career-oriented, or fits in with some influential person’s general picture of the economy.

In each of these cases, what I see is an expansion of one of the central myths of higher ed in America, namely that the purpose of choosing a major is to secure a specific job or to get started on a particular career path.

This is nonsense.

For starters, and to state what should be obvious, but apparently isn’t, choice of major doesn’t guarantee any form of employment. A student can make all the “right”choices and still end up working in some other field or in jobs that don’t appear to make direct use of the content of their college major, or not able to find work at all. Simply majoring in a STEM field or in some narrowly drawn program like Heath Care Management (or whatever) doesn’t guarantee specific or gainful employment anymore than majoring in a “loser” academic field in the social sciences, arts or humanities fates one to a life of drawing espresso.

Increasing one’s prospects for decent employment is a perfectly fine reason to go to college, and there is certainly no shortage of studies and data about employment, unemployment, and earnings to demonstrate the economic value of having an undergraduate degree. The misapprehension that springs from this general point, for students, for parents, for legislators, for members of boards, for, even, administrators, is that if it’s better to have a degree than not it must be even better to study something “practical”.

One obvious risk to Florida’s proposal that Weissmann notes in his article is that many students will be tempted to declare majors for which they may not have a true aptitude or passion. Those students are likely to either fail out of their programs or end up being less competitive in the job market in comparison to those who are better prepared and more talented.

When it comes to actual funding decisions, little value is assigned to what a college education can do for students beyond the promise of specific employment. Very few people have aspirations that stop at their job. In our lives as friends, neighbors, members of families, and citizens, and in our non-employment related pursuits, there is value in having had breadth built into our higher educations. There is value in cultivating broader habits of the mind that make us better thinkers, readers, information-seekers, and communicators. Even in the context of economistic arguments about higher ed, it is worth noting that these qualities are also useful in seeking employment, and, over the course of a lifetime, likely more useful than any specific career-related or technical knowledge one may have acquired in a particular moment, e.g., when one was an undergrad.

The danger inherent in a proposal like the Florida tuition scheme or the current approach to hiring at my institutions is that, over time, “low demand” programs will die on the vine. If that happens, institutions will be left with the problem of how to actually educate, as well as train, all of those scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. There would also be the question of what to do with students who, despite all the incentives, choose to major in fields outside of the STEM or professional and pre-professional areas. I don’t think it can be overstated that there will always be students for whom science, math, engineering, and related fields, will not be good or viable options. And yet if the general economic case for a college degree holds true, state systems should have an interest in ensuring adequate alternatives for students choosing to pursue higher education, and, at some level, that means supporting academic majors in the humanities, arts, and social sciences alongside those in the STEM fields and in explicitly career-oriented programs.

One thing that I’ve noticed lately about how my institution works is while the largest majors do tend to be in professional, pre-professional, or explicitly career-focused, in the main, these programs only serve their majors. While departments in the traditional liberal arts and sciences may not have that many majors in comparison, in any given graduating class, more students will have taken courses from faculty in those programs than in the aforementioned majors, which are found in Business, Criminal Justice, Education, and Computer Science.

I don’t have a problem with this, nor would I disagree that a department with tens or hundreds of majors merits a faculty adequate to serve their students, but what I do object to is the manner in which demand seems to only be assessed in terms of markets, whether at the university or in the larger economy*. Yes, many of the social sciences, arts and humanities may have small majors, but faculty in those programs teach a lot of students from across the university. That service, that kind of “demand”, is routinely discounted, I think, because it is primarily the result of how the general education curriculum is designed.

But here’s the thing. I don’t think this is some accident or quirk of history. Disciplines like mine, geography, are meant to provide generally useful knowledge about the world. Modern professional fields are primarily intended to educate students with specific job and career aspirations. While I would not want to suggest that there is no value in, say, non-business majors or minors taking Business courses, in my experience, faculty in fields like that are primarily interested in teaching students who are looking for preparation in that field. The fact that Business, etc. are not explicitly represented in the general education curriculum, especially at the lower division, is because faculty in those programs have opted out of participation, and not because they have been excluded.

At the same time, most faculty in the professional and pre-professional areas rely on faculty in other departments to provide breadth and fundamentals to their students. Most faculty in those areas realize that their students are better off for having taken courses in the traditional liberal arts and sciences. And yet proposals like Florida’s, or decisions like those being made around hiring at my institution, seem to be made with little understanding or appreciation of how higher education actually works in practice for faculty and students.

*I also think it should be noted that “demand” is a slippery concept in these discussions. Majors like Criminal Justice or Business often do show high levels of demand on many campuses in terms of enrollment, and they do guide students into specific jobs or careers, but students with degrees in those areas largely do not command the same kind of demand in the job market that majors in the STEM fields do. So, in some ways apples and oranges are being lumped together in this blog post, but that’s largely because they do in practice, too. On many campuses, the STEM fields are likely small in terms of enrollment, but are supported because of apparent demand in the job market. Many professional, pre-professional, and career-oriented fields are supported because students want to major in those areas. In either case, departments in the middle are left to fight over whatever crumbs are dropped on the campus floor.

My tumblr: small city graffiti and street art

I’ve been meaning to mention here that I’ve started a blog on tumblr, Small City Bomb Report, dedicated to documenting graffiti and street art in smaller cities and towns. Most of the images are from Corvallis, but I’ve also reblogged some pictures from other tumblrs, notably snappingthewalls’ blog, and streets.

A few of the photos you can see with more information at Small City Bomb Report (all graffiti & street art from Corvallis, Oregon, photos by me):

“This is what a house looks like”: contesting the neighborhood

Last week these signs started showing up in our neighborhood, "This is What a House Looks Like"and specifically one block over from where our house is located, across from and adjacent to new housing being built on the site of a tear-down. Since then, the campaign has migrated to other blocks and streets.

Anne-Marie and I have talked on and off about the signs since noticing them last weekend. Lately we have mostly been making jokes about expanding the scope of the effort, putting up signs that say, “This is what a tree looks like”, “This is what a car looks like”, “This is what a dog looks like”; you get the idea.

Those jokes stem from the unease that I, and I think Anne-Marie, have about this campaign. There are a number of possible subtexts to the message on the sign that I am reluctant to support even as I am sympathetic to other purposes embedded in the idea.

As our playing around with alternatives implies, my main concern has to do with the implication that there is only one acceptable way for a house to look, and that look conforms to American white and middle class ideals around the family.

On Corvallis TidBits, an online “community newspaper”, you can view a statement of purpose about the sign campaign. There are two salient points.

One is that the new development contravenes public testimony in opposition to the units, which, according to the statement, takes advantage of a quirk in city law that allows for ‘single attached’ housing to be built across property lines, even where multi-unit housing would be disallowed if built on a single lot.

This is where I am in sympathy with the aims of the campaign. In a city with a reported vacancy rate of less than 1%, and high demand for student housing in particular, developers have substantial leverage to shape development in ways that are expedient for profit-making, but maybe not in the best long-term interests of neighbors, or for the quality of the city’s housing stock. American landscapes are rife with structures built without regard to context, and that can be alienating.

The houses in question appear to be a large in relation to those immediately adjacent, but, as Anne-Marie has observed, the real concern about many of the newest developments in the neighborhood, and nearby, is the layouts, which are maximized for individual living space while minimizing shared living area. The concern here, and as expressed in the TidBits article, is the new housing will only be attractive to students. From a market perspective, that’s where the easy to assess demand lies. Our neighborhood, which today is called “Avery Addition”, is just a few blocks from Oregon State University and a short walk to downtown (from our house we can get to the other side of either campus or downtown in about twenty minutes on foot). As the new 300-unit complex going in behind us suggests, market incentives in this area clearly break in favor of catering to students.

So, yes, the development under dispute does raise questions about democracy and sustainability, and the nature of ownership, or the intersection of private rights and public goods. It is hard for me to argue with the case for a more open and dialogic process where individual, community, city, and developer interests are all given comparable weights and room for articulation.

On the other hand, the statement of purpose for the “This is what a house looks like” signs also claims that Avery Addition is, “a traditional housing neighborhood”.

In one sense, I guess that is another way of making the point about design and layouts, but in another sense that statement encapsulates my uneasiness with the implication of the campaign that only single-family housing is acceptable. Taken in context, I’m not sure that the statement holds up to scrutiny, underscoring my sense that there is a kind of class privilege being exercised through the signs, and underneath the rhetoric and concern for democracy and sustainability.

The neighborhood we live in dates to the 1850s. There is a history here, but the area is not historic in the sense that term is usually used in battles over preservation, which is to signify that a neighborhood has an identifiable and consistent character. There have clearly been distinct periods of development and redevelopment continuing to the present. If you were to take a walk through Avery Addition you would see a variety of house styles – cottages, bungalows, ranches, split-levels – from a variety of eras – nineteenth to twenty-first centuries – and sizes – one, two, and three story. There’s no standard lot size. Some houses have been kept and maintained as single-family structures, while others have been divided into apartments or otherwise adapted for the rental market. Some have been carefully renovated, while others haven’t seen significant work in decades. Even before the new development, the neighborhood was ringed by apartment complexes dating to the 70s, 80s, and 90s (judging by appearances). I think, but have not confirmed, that there are one or two houses near us that are active communes of some kind. Avery Addition is one of the denser and more eclectic neighborhoods in Corvallis in terms of its housing and its residents.

“This is what a house looks like” seems to fly in the face of the area’s history and the neighborhood’s actually existing housing stock. Students are already here in significant numbers, and likely have been for decades. In this light, the sign campaign feels not just conservative but reactionary.

And yet it I also wish that developers would take, or could be compelled to take, a different approach to what is currently being built. The new complex behind us is, essentially, a dorm, even offering individual leases on shared apartments. There is little reason, beyond profiting from the current student-driven housing shortage, for the developments to be so narrowly tailored to one group of market participants.

I am not, however, in principle, opposed to multi-unit housing or density; we chose to move here in part because of the close-in location and the density that implies. I expect to be living next to students and other renters, to people sharing housing, as well as to single-family homeowners, not to mention urban farmers, other academics and white collar professionals, writers and artists, retirees – Avery Addition seems like it has a diversity of housing for people of different needs and backgrounds. I think that’s good and all too rare in the U.S. I don’t think this neighborhood actually does have one kind of house and it certainly has more than one kind of home.