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Being in the middle could pay off for Tacoma

Everyone loves the middle class these days — or at least they claim to.

Politicians continually proclaim the importance of protecting the middle class. Labor unions increasingly substitute the term “middle class” for “working class” in their political and bargaining-table campaigns. Businesses chant how important it is to offer a good economic climate so that companies can continue to provide jobs that are the foundation of middle-class life.

And why not? Whatever definitions, boundaries and characteristics you ascribe to the middle class, it’s a huge component of American society. It’s where the votes, union members and business customers are. Even if you don’t particularly care for the middle class, you can’t afford to ignore it.

The middle class matters not just for its size but for how it has traditionally shaped and defined the U.S. We aspire to be middle class. Sure, we’ll take obscene wealth if it falls into our laps, but since it rarely does, we’ll be more than content in the middle class. It can be a very comfortable life — which is why immigrants and other groups starting at the bottom make a beeline for middle-class status as fast as they can get there.

The past few years, however, haven’t been kind to those trying to reach middle class or stay there, and those who count themselves as middle class may be forgiven just how deep or sincere the professed love for them really is. Politicians are constantly ginning up a few more taxes to lay on them, and businesses have done their part to erode the middle class through wage and job cuts and shipping work overseas.

But growing the middle class does matter in multiple ways, which is why we’re going to add one more recommendation to our occasional list of economic-development themes, strategies and positioning statements for making Tacoma healthy and vibrant.

Try this one on: “Tacoma — The Middle-Class City.”

All right, it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, or leap off the bumper sticker. It needs some tweaking.

But let’s focus on the underlying opportunity here — making Tacoma the affordable, convenient and welcoming city for middle-class homes, jobs, families and citizens.

The opportunity was brought to light by a recent report from Seattle-based real estate firm Zillow, which played with some numbers on regional wages vs. housing costs.

“Single-earners making the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour cannot afford a typical rental property in any of the almost 15,100 cities and towns analyzed by Zillow without spending more than 30 percent of their annual income on rent,” a release said. “Households with at least two minimum wage-earners can afford to rent a typical home in just 135 cities and towns nationwide without exceeding the 30 percent threshold, or less than 1 percent of all communities analyzed by Zillow.”

The minimum wage in Washington is not $7.25 — as of Jan. 1, it’s $9.47. Not that that helps, Zillow says. For the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area a single earner would need a wage of $36.28 an hour not to exceed that 30-percent threshold.

The minimum wage in Seattle is not $36.28 an hour (but don’t give them any ideas). Not surprisingly, you’d need an even higher wage in San Francisco or New York, but much lower in Dallas and Atlanta; Zillow’s interactive map shows a preponderance of less expensive cities in the Midwest and South.

The explanation, accompanied by shoulder shrug, is that those higher-cost cities are where the good jobs are, where all the fun is. You want that, you gotta pay. Sure, you can find better deals in (to cite some Northwest examples) in Yakima, Roseburg, Oregon, or Idaho Falls — provided you can find a job there or want to live there.

But here are some missing insights that could play to Tacoma’s favor. Rental and purchase prices are not uniform across the region. Median price of closed sales for single-family homes in November, as reported by Northwest Multiple Listing Service: $399,000 in King County, $227,000 in Pierce County. That disparity is going to look increasingly attractive as families find themselves priced out of Seattle and environs.

But what about commuting cost and time to reach Seattle, where all the jobs supposedly are? Businesses are feeling the same squeeze on operating costs as employees, and if they think there are better deals and good workers to be had elsewhere, they’ll go find them.

But what about being so far away from the cultural epicenter? Either you’re in the Big City or you’re nowhere, right? Middle-class types like that stuff too, and they can find it in Tacoma (at price points they can afford), but other things rank higher on the list — good schools, decent city services, public safety, decent-paying jobs, a place that isn’t a challenge or a chore to live in.

Can Tacoma be that kind of city, a city known for the amenities valued by the middle class? There’s a big challenge/opportunity for city government, economic-development officials, businesses and others as we roll into 2015. It’s not a glamorous or quick-payoff strategic direction to take the city, and if the rhetoric isn’t backed up by real-world experience, it won’t work. The middle class has heard all the expressions of love it needs, but love won’t pay the rent, even in a less expensive town like this one.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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