How Portland Got Its Groove Back

The city where “young people go to retire” is having an economic renaissance, with lessons for the rest of the country.

By , The Slate

While I was in Portland, Ore., last week to give a few talks on economic policy, at least four different people told me the same joke about the local economy.

 “Portland,” they said, “is where young people go to retire.” Fun city, in other words, but a bleak labor market. The joke turns out to be borrowed from the IFC show Portlandia. The city is described as reminiscent of a time when “people were unambitious; they’d sleep till 11 and just hang out with their friends.” Or a time when there were “no occupations whatsoever, maybe working a couple of hours at the coffee shop.” This is said with affection on the show, but the city’s reputation for labor-market difficulties weighs heavily on residents, particularly because they’re proud of its quality of life. If, despite all the bike paths and painstakingly made pour-over coffee, you’re an economic backwater, that seems to suggest you’re doing something wrong.

And it wasn’t just jokes told in coffee shops or on TV shows. In 2010, a consortium of area business groups released a report (PDF) attempting to explain “why Portland-metro’s economy underperforms” relative to comparable cities such as Seattle, Denver, and Minneapolis. The authors noted a substantial and growing gap in per-capita income between the Portland and Seattle metropolitan areas, driven primarily by weak workforce participation.

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