Tacoma gets poorer while others prosper

Ken Miller is a North Tacoma resident and former News Tribune reader columnist.
Ken Miller is a North Tacoma resident and former News Tribune reader columnist.

Obscured by new U.S. Census data about growth in Pierce County is a curious fact: Tacoma has grown hardly at all, except to become more poor.

Two technical notes before we dive in. First, the new data cover counties but not cities, so for city trends we rely on 2016 Census reports (released in 2017).

Second, we use the Census Bureau definition of “people in poverty,” which is more restrictive than the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) definition of “low income people” who qualify for housing support.

As a result, our discussion ignores roughly 14,000 Tacomans considered “low income” by HUD but not “in poverty” by the Census.

From 2000 through 2016, Tacoma grew 6 percent, adding 12,000 people. Pierce County excluding Tacoma grew 24 percent in that period, adding 120,000 people. Similarly, Washington state grew 24 percent.

Slow growth isn’t all bad. But in both business and government, some costs go up regardless: employee health care; information technology updates; wages for in-demand skills. In a slow-growth environment, revenue doesn’t keep pace with increasing costs.

To complicate the situation, the number of poor people in Tacoma is growing faster than the overall population. Of the 12,000 people added between 2000 and 2016, 7,000 were in poverty.

Looking more recently, from 2010 to 2016, we see the city added 7,200 people, and more than 75 percent (5,500 people) were in poverty.

Overall, poor people as a share of Tacoma’s population grew from 15 percent in 2000 to 18 percent in 2016. And Tacoma’s median household income (MHI) barely budged over the period.

In constant dollars (excluding inflation) Tacoma’s MHI grew $600 in 16 years. For comparison, Washington’s MHI grew about $2,000, Pierce County’s $2,300 and King County’s $4,000.

To understand Tacoma’s situation, we need more than numbers; we need a narrative. Here’s a first draft.

“The poor” in Tacoma are most often “the working poor.” HUD, United Way’s ALICE project and the Economic Policy Institute are a few sources of data showing that most low-income people (excluding children and the elderly) work at least part time.

Tacoma appeals to the working poor (even if they work elsewhere) because of services such as free health care, subsidized housing, parks and youth programs.

Therefore Tacoma has become the region’s hiring hall for low-wage workers: dishwashers, nurses’ aides, retail clerks. These jobs are necessary, but if low-wage workers become too big a part of the population, city government and many businesses will suffer the consequences.

Tacoma has lots of options; here are a few:

▪ Maintain the status quo and hope for the best.

▪ Strip government to the studs, building reserves to protect essential services.

▪ Make Tacoma less hospitable to the working poor.

▪ Persuade the rest of Pierce County to help support the hiring hall.

▪ Outlaw low wages and require more employer-paid benefits.

▪ Encourage growth of low-wage businesses to create more jobs.

▪ Invest more in workforce skills to support high-wage businesses.

▪ Raise taxes.

▪ Find out why Tacoma isn’t growing like the rest of the state and county.

None of these are perfect choices; some have fatal flaws. And choosing a civic strategy isn’t this simple.

Maybe the most we can ask is that Tacoma face the future realistically, recognizing the challenge is less to manage growth and more to manage growing poverty in the midst of a prosperous region.

That should be challenge enough.

Ken Miller is a former News Tribune reader columnist and served as chair of the Tacoma Housing Authority. Reach him by email at krm403@gmail.com.