Stuck: running in place in Oregon

I work in Hillsboro, OR where evidence of a strong economy is everywhere. It’s tempting to assume that family income must be growing by leaps and bounds in Washington County, too, and to extrapolate and assume all is well statewide.

Not so much.

In fact, even Washington County isn’t doing that great, despite the presence of Intel, which has been growing like kudzu, feverishly sprouting buildings and good jobs.

Way back, growth in the U.S. economy was accompanied by income increases across the board, improving the lot of the poor and expanding the middle class. Everybody shared in the rising tide.

middle_class_family

But that hasn’t been happening for a long time. Now a lot of people find themselves working harder, but just treading water.

“Over the past 25 years, the (U.S.) economy has grown 83 percent, after adjusting for inflation — and the typical family’s income hasn’t budged,” according to a recent analysis by the Washington Post. “In that time, corporate profits doubled as a share of the economy. Workers today produce nearly twice as many goods and services per hour on the job as they did in 1989, but as a group, they get less of the nation’s economic pie.”

The result? In 81 percent of America’s counties, median family income is lower today than it was 15 years ago, the Post analysis revealed.

What about in Oregon? I decided to look deeper. The data shows that in 25 Oregon counties, the inflation-adjusted median family income is lower today than it was 15 years ago.

That’s true even in Washington County where median household income, adjusted for inflation, actually peaked in 1999 at $72,787. That year was also the peak for such wildly dispersed counties as Clackamas, Deschutes and Malheur.

The situation is even worse in counties such as Baker and Lake where median family income, adjusted for inflation, hit its peak 35 years ago.

If you really want to hit bottom, there are six counties, including Curry, Lane and Wheeler, where medium family income, adjusted for inflation, peaked 45 years ago. That’s right, almost half a century ago, when Richard Nixon was inaugurated President and the Apollo 11 astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., took their first walk on the moon.

So what we have in Oregon is an economy in which few of us are really better off economically then we were years ago.

Here’s the county-by-county breakdown of when median household income, adjusted for inflation, peaked in each of Oregon’s 36 counties and the level at which it peaked.

Oregon-county-map

County Peak Year Amount
Hood River 2013 $56,725
Sherman 2009 $52,664
Washington 1999 $72,787
Clackamas 1999 $72,264
Columbia 1999 $63,555
Yamhill 1999 $62,070
Polk 1999 $59,218
Benton 1999 $58,558
Deschutes 1999 $58,159
Multnomah 1999 $57,733
Marian 1999 $56,673
Linn 1999 $52,326
Crook 1999 $50,759
Jackson 1999 $50,734
Clatsop 1999 $50,289
Jefferson 1999 $49,678
Tillamook 1999 $48,026
Wallowa 1999 $44,726
Josephine 1999 $43,406
Malheur 1999 $42,525
Morrow 1979 $57,126
Wasco 1979 $54,645
Harney 1979 $54,318
Umatilla 1979 $50,513
Lake 1979 $49,714
Grant 1979 $48,786
Union 1979 $48,006
Lincoln 1979 $47,053
Baker 1979 $42,760
Lane 1969 $52,736
Coos 1969 $52,171
Gilliam 1969 $49,892
Klamath 1969 $49,511
Curry 1969 $49,042
Wheeler 1969 $40,675

SOURCES: U.S. Census and American Community Survey. Amounts in 2013 dollars.

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American businesses: meet your future job applicants

When Ellis Island opened in 1892, it welcomed immigrants escaping war, drought, famine and religious persecution and hoping America would offer them a new start.

Today, the Hillsboro School District is welcoming an increasingly diverse group of students, many of whom left their homes around the world because of brutal wars, punishing poverty, religious and political conflict, violence and/or a simple desire for a better life.

Tobias Elementary School, for example, is filling with children from Central America, Mexico, Ukraine, Thailand, Cambodia, Somalia, Egypt, Iraq and other countries speaking up to 30 languages. The mix depends, to some degree, on where the greatest turmoil and unrest is occurring, according to Steve Callaway, Tobias’ principal.

somalistudents

Many of these students are from low-income and, in many cases, low-educated, families where English is not the first language at home, behaviors and value systems vary widely and the American culture is not deeply embedded.

The shift has been dramatic. In the 1999-2000 school year, Tobias was largely white and culturally homogenous, with just 6.3 percent of the student body from principally mobile Hispanic migrant families and more from a smattering of other ethnicities, including Asian children whose parents worked in high-tech.

By the 2013-2014 school year, minority students from diverse cultures outnumbered white students at Tobias for the first time:

White: 47.8 percent.

Black: 3.5 percent.

Hispanic: 24.7 percent.

Asian/Pacific Islander: 12.2 percent.

American Indian/Alaskan Native: 0.6 percent.

Multiethnic: 11.3 percent.

The trend at Tobias is being replicated at the rest of Hillsboro’s schools, which were 49.5 percent white in the 2013-2014 school year.

Hillsboro School District demographics
Ethnicity No. of students Pct. of students
American Indian 174 0.83
Black 439 2.10
Hispanic 7,475 35.67
Asian 1,341 6.40
Pacific Islander 163 0.78
Multiethnic 965 4.74
White 10,368 48.48
TOTAL 20,955 100.00

Concentrations of children from particular ethnic groups are occurring in certain Hillsboro schools because their families want to live in close proximity. This has led, for example, to 19 Somali students attending Hillsboro’s Imlay Elementary School in the 2013-2014 school year and 15 this school year.

The U.S. Department of Education projects that minorities will outnumber whites among the nation’s public school students for the first time this fall. In other words, the minorities will become the majority.

What this means in the longer term is that Hillsboro’s workforce of the future is going to look quite different from today. Hillsboro’s economic viability and America’s greatness will be diminished if we don’t do all we can to educate these ethnically and culturally diverse children.

It’s critical that we prepare them for success as creative problem solvers and engaged community members in work and life. It’s also essential that we inculcate in them a belief in the American Dream and a commitment to the kind of effort that will bring them social and economic mobility.

“Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” says Callaway. There are so many ways local businesses can show much they care about preparing children for work.

Companies can open their facilities to students who want to learn more about the world of work and career options by offering job shadows and paid internships. “All students need to be more aware of what job opportunities are out there,” says Leslie Smith Mayfield, a 3rd grade teacher and STEM Coordinator at Tobias. “We need help from business to expose kids, even in the elementary grades, to what options there are in the real world. Some bright kids are going to go to waste if they don’t realize the options they can work towards.”

Awareness also needs to expand to the skilled trades, which can offer well-paid, stable careers. For example, Callaway says he’d welcome having IBEW workers come in to teach kids about basic electrical circuitry.

Elaine Philippi, manager of student programs at the Business Education Compact, talks up the BEC STEM Connect TM Initiative. Volunteers from a business visit a school at least four times in an academic year, educating the students about their company, engaging students in activities that promote STEM concepts and collaborative processes and helping out at a science night or other community event.

Employees at local businesses can also get involved by helping with field trips, providing reading assistance, giving technical demonstrations, and even presenting on their hobbies. Astronomy and geology hobbyists, for example, have visited Tobias classrooms.

Businesses can give grants of all sizes to enable schools to offer innovative programs. For example, a Tobias teacher secured a grant to support an engineering math program for 6th grade girls.

Equipment can be donated to enhance the learning experience.

Companies can form partnerships with local schools, as FEI, Intel and Vernier have already done with Tobias.

All of this could help boost achievement levels and increase completion rates at Hillsboro’s increasingly diverse schools. That will benefit the local business community down the road when these youngsters enter the job market.

Watch video about Tobias Elementary School

This blog also appeared as a column in the Hillsboro Argus, October 1, 2014

Availability of affordable, quality child care can clear a path out of poverty

This week the U.S. Census Bureau released comprehensive reports on nationwide and state poverty in 2013. There are a lot of almost mind-numbing numbers in the reports, but behind those numbers are millions of Americans struggling with poverty that infects their lives 24 hours a day and shapes their future.

The Census Bureau reports reveal that the poverty rate for Oregon improved somewhat from 17.2 percent in 2012 to 16.7 percent in 2013, but remains stubbornly high. One way to reduce it further is to ensure that quality, affordable child care is available to low-income families.

Holding tight, a child grins as she enjoys being pushed on a swing by Jan McIntosh at Good Apple Child Care Preschool in Hillsboro. What a treat.

childcarefot

But for this child’s low-income parents, and many other low-income Washington County residents who want to work and want the best for their children, it can be tough to access affordable, quality child care.

But child care is essential to help low-income people climb out of poverty and children who don’t get a good start often enter kindergarten behind and stay behind throughout their schooling.

It’s in the community’s best interest to provide a strong foundation for all children to develop into well-educated adults ready to participate in the work force and keep our economy strong. It’s also in the community’s interest to facilitate work by adults because work builds self-esteem and creates self-sufficiency.

One Oregon program that helps make work possible is the Employment Related Day Care program run by the state’s Department of Human Services (DHS). It provides financial assistance to help eligible low-income working families pay for child care, enabling parents to stay employed and children to be well cared for in stable child care arrangements.

The program helps approximately 20,000 Oregon families every year pay for child care for about 35,000 children.

About half the children who attended Good Apple Child Care Preschool in Hillsboro this summer were being helped by the program.

The preschool’s owners, Jan and James McIntosh, operate out of their 1,200 square foot home with its half-acre backyard playground.

If a child wants to enjoy arts and crafts, hike through Jackson Bottom Wetlands, take a field trip to the Enchanted Forest, get introduced to reading and music, or dunk her feet in poster paint and make footprints on poster paper, Good Apple’s the place to be.

The 16 boisterous children there this summer ranged from 6 months to 9 years of age; that switches to children 6 months to 5 years of age when school starts. The children are overseen by between three to six staff members, depending on the activities under way.

The nonprofit Community Action organization, which works to eliminate conditions of poverty and create opportunities for people and communities to thrive, helped Good Apple succeed.

“We were hooked up early on with Jan Alvarez, a child care specialist at Community Action of Washington County, and she has been awesome,” said Jan McIntosh. “She’s encouraged us to take the steps to get our certification, get nationally accredited and then participate in Oregon’s Quality Rating Improvement System (QRIS), which aims to raise the bar on quality child care and prepare children for kindergarten.”

Community Action also educates low-income working families about child care options, such as home-based programs and child care centers, and offers a broad range of face to face and online training classes in English and Spanish to child care operators and staff, such as first aid and CPR and child abuse and neglect training.

Karen Henkemeyer, who manages the child care program at Community Action, said some low-income families also find that providing child care can help lift them out of poverty while allowing them to stay close to their own children.

Child care providers throughout Washington County are striving to make a difference for low-income children and their parents. It’s critical that we support efforts to provide a full range of affordable, high quality child care if the county and all of its residents are to prosper.

For more information about child care-related programs in Washington County, call Community Action at 971-223-6100 or visit its website, caowash.org/ccrr.

Washington County or Casino County?

By Bill MacKenzie

You know the typical casino ad. The gorgeous blonde’s crystal blue eyes gaze adoringly at the urbane, fashionably dressed man as he places a bet. The couple is surrounded by smiling, equally fashionable friends enjoying the gaiety.

You almost expect Jay Gatsby to stroll into the scene from West Egg and enjoy the fun.

Dede’s Café, hiding off to the side in the Hillsboro Promenade at the corner of Southwest Baseline Road and Southwest Cornelius Pass Road in Hillsboro, is the raw reality of the casino Washington County has become.

At Dede’s, six video lottery machines with brightly lit screens are crammed into a space not much more expansive than a large walk-in closet. On a recent mid-afternoon visit, I found all the machines being used by solitary, slightly disheveled men and women in jeans and sweatshirts.

All of them looked hypnotized by the glow of the screen in front of them. Almost motionless, except for the rapid movement of their hands to push the play buttons, they sat mute in the dim light.

A man with a black hat pulled down over his gray hair slipped a $10 bill in one machine and started briskly tapping the play buttons. He got up to $46.45 on Game of Dragons II, but didn’t take his winnings and celebrate. Instead, in a few minutes he fell back to $5.19.

Switching to a Zeus game, he bounced up to $23.49. When he went to $6, he shifted to another game. After 20 minutes of play, when he was down to 35 cents, he slipped in another $20 bill and resumed play.

MIT anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll knows such people well. In her book, “Addiction by Design,” she shows how the rhythm of gambling at electronic terminals puts people into a trancelike state in which gamblers keep playing not to win, but so they can stay “in the game” and maximize their “time on device.”

Oregon voters overwhelmingly approved the lottery in 1984. It launched in 1985 at a Portland event featuring an 84-foot-tall inflatable King Kong, perhaps symbolizing the behemoth the lottery would become.

Dede’s Café is now part of a rising river of lottery money flooding Oregon. The money has turned the county and the state into unwitting addicts as Oregon’s lottery take has gone from $87.8 million in 1986 to $1.1 billion in 2013. It’s a very big business.

The lure of raking in lottery dollars without having to raise taxes has long been appealing to politicians anxious to satiate government’s insatiable thirst for revenue. In fact, the lottery is often referred to as a “voluntary tax,” though Schüll’s research calls the “voluntary” part into question.

In fiscal year 2013, 204 lottery retailers in Washington County generated net receipts of $87.7 million from 1,035 video terminals, almost equal to the number of video slot machines at the Wildhorse Casino in Pendleton.

The numbers are even more impressive when you combine net receipts from video terminals with sales of traditional games, such as scratch-its and Megabucks. Together, these totaled $125.7 million in all of Washington County.

Washington County sees a return from all this gambling activity in the form of direct and indirect jobs and money the state devotes to parks, natural resources, education and various economic development efforts.

The county also receives direct payments equal to 2.5 percent of lottery proceeds. This money must be applied to economic development/job creation programs, liberating county revenue for other priorities.

But the lottery bounty also means the county and state are increasingly relying on the generous flow of lottery dollars, which are not a dependable or sustainable source of revenue. If lottery revenue declines, or even fails to grow, a lot of established programs could face tough adjustments.

Washington County residents are getting decidedly mixed messages. On the one hand, business and government leaders are aggressively delivering messages about the importance of education and hard work in achieving success.

At the same time, the lottery undermines the messages by constantly suggesting in tantalizing ads and much ballyhooed winner announcements that riches are just one lucky ticket or one play away.

So go ahead. Make your wager. Just remember that in the end, the house always wins.

Bill MacKenzie is a former congressional staff member, newspaper reporter and communications manager for a Hillsboro company.

Originally published in the Hillsboro Tribune,  Nov. 11, 2013

Hillsboro’s data centers: Big tax breaks, little disclosure

By Bill MacKenzie 

Computer data centers built in Hillsboro’s Enterprise Zone are enjoying generous tax breaks with almost no public accountability.

Companies with data centers already open or on their way include T5 Data Centers, Umpqua Holding Cos., Via West Inc., Fortune Data Centers, Digital Realty Trust Inc., which houses NetApp in its building, and Adobe Systems Inc.

Oregon’s 63 Enterprise Zones are designed to attract investments by exempting businesses from 100 percent of local property taxes on new investments for up to two years while construction is in process and up to five years after that if they are growing employment in the zone.  Because IT equipment in a data center must usually be refreshed within 5 years, the net effect is that there is no tax, neither sales nor property, on such equipment in Enterprise Zones. Fortune says these “…are enormous financial incentives”.

Are the tax breaks Hillsboro’s giving out to data centers paying off for the city?

Since the Enterprise Zone program is ballyhooed as a job creator, you’d expect stringent and substantial hiring requirements to be tied to the valuable property tax exemptions. You’d also expect the city and the data center companies getting the tax breaks would gleefully share their job creation achievements with the public to demonstrate their impact, openness and corporate responsibility.

Forget about it.

Enterprise Zone contracts require that if a data center already operates inside the Zone and applies for benefits or renewal, it is required to increase employment by just ten percent. If a firm locates a new data center in the Zone it only needs to add one employee to be in compliance. That’s right, just one.

As for job creation, the City of Hillsboro said it didn’t have employment numbers on the data centers in the Enterprise Zone. Mark Clemons, Hillsboro’s Economic Development Director, has, however, said publicly that all the Enterprise Zone companies have added a total of 1,420 jobs since joining the program. How he arrived at that number without knowing the number of employees at each company, including the data centers, is a puzzlement.

Just one data center company disclosed its Hillsboro employment numbers to me. NetApp said it has 12 full time employees plus one contractor and expects to hire one or two more people over the next couple years. It’s likely that the other data centers have similarly small workforces.

As a general rule, if incentives cost more than the resulting jobs contribute to the economy, they are misplaced. Given the significant tax abatements enjoyed by the data centers in Hillsboro’s Enterprise Zone, the wisdom of those abatements is questionable.

Still, the public can be assured that the employees earn good wages, right? When I asked all the data centers for the average wage of their employees, not a single one provided the figure.

But, thankfully, Hillsboro taxpayers can easily find out the value of the tax abatement each of the multi-million dollar data centers is getting from the city. That way the public can judge whether the foregone taxes are worth it in terms of investments made and jobs created.

Nope.

I asked the Washington County tax assessor’s office how much the Enterprise Zone property tax exemptions save each data center annually. “…it has been determined that this information is confidential and exempt from disclosure,” replied Julie McCloud with the Washington County Administrative Office.

Quite simply, there is little transparency to the entire data center process. Without a requirement that data centers make their the employment numbers, average wages, investment numbers and the value of the tax abatements public, it is impossible to judge how much each new job is costing the city and whether the job gains are worth the tax losses.

Without that, the public can’t know whether the data center Enterprise Zone     deals being cut by the city make sense.

It’s time to change that.

 

Bill MacKenzie is a former congressional staff member, newspaper reporter and communications manager for a Hillsboro company.

Originally published in the Hillsboro Tribune,  Oct 25, 2013

 

Sometimes it pays to go with the crowd

By Bill MacKenzie

It seems like nearly everybody is trying to raise money for their personal use through online “crowdfunding.” It’s clearly not just for start-up businesses.

Crowdfunding — funding a project by raising many small amounts of money from a large number of people — is exploding in Hillsboro, throughout Oregon and across the United States.

Even Caroline Channing, the tall blonde in the TV show “2 Broke Girls,” is a believer. In a recent episode, she went on a crowdfunding website, gofundyourself.com, in an attempt to raise $1,500 for a new pair of pants.

If you believe in the wisdom of the crowd, the Internet is bursting with opportunities to join others investing in people.

Keith Merrow of Hillsboro recently sought to raise $15,000 on a crowdfunding website, Indiegogo.com. His band, Conquering Dystopia, wanted to use the money to record an album.

In just 45 days, his campaign raised $35,320, more than double his goal, from 792 contributors, some as far away as Australia.

Typical of arrangements on Indiegogo, contributors got no financial return on their investment, but could pick a gift based on the amount of their donation. A $10 donation spurred a digital download of the album; a $500 donation earned a VIP dinner with band members at the Hard Rock Cafe in Seattle.

Matt Peterson of Hillsboro tried to raise $3,000 on another crowdfunding website, GoFundMe.com, so he could go to a 28-day intensive wrestling camp. He reached $1,750 from 16 people in six months, then secured the rest from family.

At GoFundMe, participants usually raise money for themselves, a friend or a loved one for purposes such as medical expenses, education costs, volunteer programs and youth sports. Fundraisers can keep every donation they get or get the donations only if they reach a pre-set goal.

A different approach is offered by the crowdfunding website pave.com, an online funding platform that allows individuals to support promising high achievers. Pave claims it’s “a new investment option, not a donation.” If the investees achieve financial success, they agree to share that with their investors.

Oren Bass, who co-founded Pave in 2012, said his motivation was basic: “To provide people with what I consider a better financing option than debt — one that allows risk-taking plus the collaboration and support of the community; and to build something with both social and macro-economic impact.”

At Pave, the percentage of income an investee commits to sharing with investors varies depending on the amount of funding raised, along with how much the recipient is expected to earn.

Stephanie Walker, an engineering student at Oregon State University, recently launched a campaign on Pave. She hopes to raise $50,000 to pay off her student loans so she can pursue a career in sustainable engineering and product design with a focus on creating sustainable materials.

Close to 30 prospects have already raised over $400,000 through Pave, and a few have started making payments to their backers.

Though crowdfunding is gaining wide acceptance, there is reason to be cautious.

To guard against fraud, Pave does extensive checks to verify identities, review credit histories and check any “structured data” a prospect supplies, such as college attendance, GPA, and work employment history.

GoFundMe is much looser in its oversight.

“With hundreds of thousands of campaigns, it’s not feasible for GoFundMe to investigate the claims stated by each campaign organizer,” reads an excerpt from the GoFundMe website.

I’m not sure what motivates people to give money online to complete strangers. Maybe a lot of people who have had good fortune want to pay it forward. Maybe it’s just a charitable impulse.

But you can’t check the veracity of a lot of crowdfunding proposals. Some are the equivalent of the infamous Nigerian email scams where mass emails promise great riches to potential victims. The entire personal crowdfunding platform relies largely on trust, something scammers have always known how to exploit. So prudence should be the watchword.

 

Bill MacKenzie is a former congressional staff member, newspaper reporter and communications manager for a Hillsboro company.

Originally published in the Hillsboro Tribune,  Nov. 15, 2013

 

American dream in a Mexican restaurant

By Bill MacKenzie

Carolina Tapia and Maria Calderon had a dream: to own a thriving, authentic Mexican restaurant. With the recent opening of A Taste of Mexico in Hillsboro, their dream is on its way to being fulfilled, but the journey has not been easy.

by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - A Taste of Mexico is now open on Southwest Cornelius Pass Road in Hillsboro. Owner-operators are Carolina Tapia and Maria Calderon. PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD – A Taste of Mexico is now open on Southwest Cornelius Pass Road in Hillsboro. Owner-operators are Carolina Tapia and Maria Calderon.

Carolina was born in the United States, but grew up in the barely-there town of San Jose del Vergel in central Mexico. She left school after the sixth grade to help at her father’s grocery store. At 17, she embarked on a pilgrimage to a better life in Oregon, where two of her brothers lived. Because her mother had been born in Colorado, her American citizenship was secure, but her future was not.

Determined to flourish in her new home, Carolina learned fluent English through immersion in the American culture, and at 19 she earned her GED. Over the next 12 years she worked for several Hillsboro manufacturing companies, including Intel and White Electronics, where, 10 years ago, she met Maria.

Maria was born in Morelia, Michoacan in southern Mexico and grew up as one of 10 children in an impoverished family. Finishing school in the ninth grade and married at 15, she became the mother of three children in the next four years. At 19, she and her family slipped across the U.S. border at Tijuana and headed to Oregon.

Maria spent her first five years in the U.S. toiling under the sun in Oregon’s fields, before shifting to a cabinet-making company and several manufacturers in the Hillsboro area, including White Electronics. In the meantime, she became a proud U.S. citizen in 1988, following the passage of federal immigration reform legislation in 1986.

“After 30 years here, I feel like this is my house, my home,” she said.

About a year ago, Maria took a trip to Mexico where she saw a number of small restaurants that seemed to be doing well. When she came home, she pitched to Carolina the idea of starting a little eatery featuring all fresh authentic Mexican food.

They leased space at 3002 S.W. Cornelius Pass Road, just off TV Highway in Hillsboro, and figured all would go smoothly.

It didn’t.

They weren’t prepared when bills came in to upgrade the plumbing or re-do the walls and floors of the leased space. They weren’t prepared for all the government requirements, each with its own fee. They weren’t prepared for the multiple government inspections and dealing with the city bureaucracy.

“It took a lot more effort, time, money and everything,” Carolina said. “We almost gave up because everything was taking too long. We had thought we could be done in three months so we could open in April. It was eight months. It was harder than we expected.”

It also took $20,000.

A Taste of Mexico finally opened on Aug. 5 with a cramped kitchen, six tables and three booths squeezed into 960 square feet.

“The first week was terrible, to be honest,” Carolina said. “We were like, oh my gosh, what did we get ourselves into?”

After about two months in business, Carolina and Maria are still struggling, but more customers are coming in with each passing week and they’re increasingly hopeful.

“Our families are behind both of us,” said Carolina. “They trust us and know we’re going to make it, and we don’t want to give up the dream.”

Bill MacKenzie is a former congressional staff member, newspaper reporter and communications manager for a Hillsboro company.

Originally published in the Hillsboro Tribune,  Oct 18, 2013