The 2015 County Data Book is out today — and the news isn’t good. Although a recovering economy has started to lead to lower rates of child poverty and higher levels of income for families overall, we’re still a long way away from where we were before the Great Recession. Even worse, the Data Book shows a stark divide in levels of economic opportunity based on skin color and place of birth.
For white kids in the Portland Metro Area, things are starting to look better. But for everyone else, and in particular for children of color, barriers to opportunity are high. White children outside the metro area and children of color live in families with much higher rates of poverty and much lower incomes. This is especially problematic given that half a person’s earnings can be predicted by how much his or her parents made.
In many ways, what we’re seeing today is a result of the long-term trend of job polarization, in which middle wage jobs are harder to come by while low and high wage jobs grow at higher rates. This polarization hollows out the middle of the income distribution and increases the gap between the high and low economic rungs. Although this polarization has been decades in the making, the Great Recession exacerbated it — in fact, 8 out of 10 jobs lost during the recession were middle wage jobs. This chart from the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis illustrates the problem well: although middle wage jobs are more available than they were in the depths of the recession, the growth rate is much smaller than that for low and high wage jobs.
For workers lucky enough to be in high wage jobs, this is all well and good. But for workers stuck in the low end of the wage distribution, this job polarization makes it even harder to stay afloat. Moreover, it negatively affects the levels of economic opportunity for their kids in the future. Paired with high housing and child care costs throughout Oregon, lower incomes mean that parents are more likely to have to live in areas with concentrated poverty, near schools with lower levels of funding, and are less likely to be able to invest in high quality early learning opportunities for their kids. All of these factors place kids at a significant disadvantage in terms of later economic success.
Most importantly, this job polarization is not random. Those most likely to move from middle to low wage jobs are workers of color — and those most likely to have access to high wage jobs are White, metro-area workers. Today, nearly half of workers of color are in low wage jobs and only 25% are in high wage jobs. For White, metro-area workers the statistics are almost the mirror image.
The aggregate economic statistics are saying that we’re in a recovery — a good but not great one. But looking below the surface, it quickly becomes clear that the bulk of our kids and families aren’t reaping any of the benefits. And without immediate action to narrow the gulf of opportunity between White, Portland-area children and everyone else, we risk setting an entire generation behind.