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Hey NY Times: Here’s How You Got Portland Wrong

Tuesday, September 30, 2014


Photo Credit: iStock

For the past five years at least, it seems like the New York Times has treated Portland as almost the long-lost sixth borough of New York, a sort of Brooklyn of the West, filled with bike-riding, beer-drinking hipsters and fashionable restaurants. 

Nothing invites snarky contrarianism more than a long string of upbeat reporting and, predictably, the Times delivered Sept. 21 with a story titled "Keep Portland Broke." In it, reporter—and former Portlander—Claire Cain Miller tells of bearded, kombucha-drinking locals and claims that “Portland has become a city of the overeducated and underemployed—a place where young people are, in many cases, forced into their semi-retirement."

Miller writes regularly for the Times' "Upshot" section, which does generally thoughtful, data-driven reporting (in the wake of Nate Silver's 538 team leaving to set up shop elsewhere).  

This makes it doubly surprising that the story doesn't report the hard data on the actual unemployment rates of these well-educated young adults.

According to the Census Bureau, the unemployment rate for 25- to 34-year-olds with a four-year degree in the Portland metro area in 2012 (the latest year for which this data is available) was 4.8 percent; that's slightly higher than the average of 4 percent for all large metro areas, but only ranking 16th highest of the 52 largest metro areas. 

The Economic Downturn 

But wait, you may say: You know a young adult who is or has been unemployed, or who is working at a job that doesn't fully tap their recently minted college degree. 

And you are certainly correct. 

But it's also the case that we're still in the midst of recovering from what nationally is the worst economic downturn in eight decades. With the exception of a few energy boomtowns—North Dakota, for example—the job prospects for recent college graduates have been worse than in several decades. 

The sluggish job market is not a Portland problem, but a national one. And well-educated young adults are even more likely to be unemployed in other big cities that people imagine to be much healthier: Portland’s unemployment rate for college-educated 25-to-34s was exactly the same as Houston's and lower than in Atlanta's and Chicago's (5.2 percent), Los Angeles's (8.3 percent), Las Vegas's (7.2 percent), and even New York's (5.7 percent).

Far from being condemned to perpetual joblessness, the typical well-educated young adult moving from New York to Portland would have a statistically better chance of being employed than if they stayed in the Big Apple.

Small Businesses 

One other statistic should convincingly bury the retired slacker myth: Portland ranks third nationally among large metro areas in the fraction of its college-educated young adults running their own businesses. People aren’t migrating to Portland to retire; they’re coming here, in many cases, to start their own businesses.

Far from producing joblessness, then, entrepreneurship and youth migration have been a genuine boon to local economic growth. It's a chief reason for the city's booming high-tech sector, the growth of the athletic apparel industry, and an expanding software scene. Companies such as Salesforce and Airbnb are moving here to tap into the local labor pool, helping Portland outperform the nation in the current recovery.

Metro Portland ranks ninth in the top 100 metro areas in economic performance, according to the Brookings Institution, based on job growth, productivity, and the housing market.

Its been a tough time over the past few years, but the economy is starting to grow again. There are good reasons for optimism about the Portland economy, chief among them the continued attractiveness of our city to talented energetic young adults. 

They’re a huge economic asset—and the more fully we understand that, rather than cater to funny but phony sterotypes, the better.

Joe Cortright is a president of Impresa, Inc., a Portland-based economic consultancy, and founder of City Observatory.

Banner Photo Credit: iStock 

Portions of this story appeared previously on-line in CityLab


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