Steady Recovery Shadowed by Steady Decline

Oregon's economy continues its steady improvement, but rural economic fortunes reveal a steady, continuing decline as young workers head to the city to find good-paying jobs.The latest quarterly Oregon economic report didn't contain any splashy news, but it does reconfirm that many Oregonians, especially in rural areas, continue to slip on the U.S. economic treadmill.

The main message is that overall economic recovery — and the tax revenue it generates — is proceeding at a steady, if slower-than-hoped-for, rate.

The report also showed a steady downward spiral in the economic fortunes of poorer Oregonians and of Oregonians that may be tumbling out of the middle class s a result of the aftershocks of the last recession.

Nowhere is the steady decline more apparent than in rural parts of Oregon, according to state economists Mark McMullen and Josh Lehner. They say younger rural residents who are entering their prime earning years are choosing to move to urban areas to chase their fortunes. That, in turn, the economists explain, could lead to a death spiral for the areas they leave.

Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, said the exodus is already underway. He blamed federal and state natural resources policies for squeezing the life out of rural economies and leaving rural wage-earners with "nothing to do."

At the same time, some industry sectors in Oregon, such as apparel makers and high technology manufacturers, are thriving. McMullen said jobs in these industries have now exceeded pre-recession employment levels and are producing family-wage jobs in the Portland metropolitan area. Bentz said it is unlikely a Nike or other apparel manufacturer would ever locate in a more remote part of the state.

While there were no warning flags hoisted at the presentation today of the economic report, the economists did remind lawmakers that Oregon's economy is tied to the global economy. A downturn in China, expanded military conflict in the Middle East or other world events could affect recovery and job growth in Oregon, they said.

The other trouble sign they noted was a growing level of long-term unemployed Oregonians. In addition to atrophying job skills, these workers suffer from the stigma of being out of work a long time, which can dissuade employers from hiring them.