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Paltry Wages, Higher Living Costs Drive Up Poverty Levels In Spokane

As a percentage of total jobs, Spokane employment in manufacturing, which pays way higher wages and better benefits than other job sectors, lags behind the rest of the nation by nearly a third.

But even in manufacturing, wages in Spokane fall far below state and national industry averages.

Not surprisingly then, family and per capita income are way below the state and the country as a whole.

What is surprising to outside observers is that, considering the poor pay - and worker benefits fare still worse by comparison, anecdotal evidence suggests - Spokane is an expensive place to live. Living costs exceed the national average by 7 percent.

Is it any wonder poverty and welfare rates in Spokane run about double the rate for the state and far above the rest of America?

This is the shocking picture of poor jobs, low wages, scant benefits and widespread poverty sketched in preliminary findings of a new economic study by national consultants.

The Pace Group of Tupelo, Miss., is conducting the research for the Spokane Area Economic Development Council. The EDC wants to know how it can better organize its efforts to recruit employers who pay higher wages and more benefits. Or at least a paycheck and benefits which beat welfare, which so much work here doesn’t.

That’s not a statement of opinion.

It’s an irrefutable fact.

And there is growing recognition that the business community must change this equation, if the community is to succeed and prosper in the future. Worker wages can be swept under the rug only so long before economic and business strength wither.

John Lovorn, chief executive of The Pace Group, is scheduled to present a peek at preliminary results of research at the EDC’s semi-annual meeting today. I don’t know what he’ll say.

This column is based on a written “interim report” by the consulting group’s on-the-spot researcher. Senior Vice President Steve Jenkins characterizes his conclusions as “initial subjective analysis” of a first round of interviews and data gathering.

The final objective is to target the kinds of industries and companies that will thrive and pay their workers well in Spokane. Then the EDC will set out to get these valuable companies to come, rather than continuing the present scattershot approach to growth.

Jenkins says flat out what many have been trying to ignore for years: The Spokane work force is underemployed.

Here’s the evidence in terms of median household income, followed by per capita income:

Spokane - $22,192 and $12,375.

Washington - $31,183 and $14,923.

Northwest - $27,897 and $13,266.

West - $32,270 and $15,245.

United States - $30,270 and $14,420.

“Spokane lags far behind the state, the region and the nation relative to incomes, thus reflecting some of the causes for the community’s poverty levels,” says Jenkins.

“Spokane also experiences one of the highest levels of households on public assistance. Eleven percent of Spokane’s households receive some form of public assistance compared with 6.7 for the state.”

In some cities, says Jenkins, “Lower incomes may be tempered by lower costs of living. In Spokane, this is not the case. Recent cost of living data from the American Chamber of Commerce Research Association indicates that Spokane is a moderate to high cost community in which to live.” Overall, living costs here are 106.7 percent of the national average.

Spokane has just 13.8 percent of its work force employed in manufacturing, vs. 18.6 for the state and 19.6 for the nation. We beat the state and nation in employment in low-wage job sectors such as retail and services.

Even then, retailing and services tend to pay less here than elsewhere, probably, I surmise, because the low-income job pool suppresses wage levels - and benefits.

Even in a top paying sector such as manufacturing, Spokane pay is subpar - $28,334 vs. the state average of $34,380 and U.S. average of $32,103.

“Retail trade and services, with (higher paying) health services factored out, represent 45 percent of the employment in Spokane, with a combined average annual wage of $13,918!” (Exclamation point his.)

But it is Spokane’s poverty statistics that are most appalling.

In Spokane, the figures for families living below the poverty level are 12.5 percent vs. just 7.8 percent for the state as a whole, 8.7 percent for the Northwest, 9.3 percent in the West, and 10 percent in the nation.

Researcher Jenkins sums up, “Spokane exceeds the poverty levels for families, persons and children in comparison with the state, the Northwest, the West and the nation.”

, DataTimes MEMO: Associate Editor Frank Bartel’s column appears on Monday, Wednesday and Sunday.

Associate Editor Frank Bartel’s column appears on Monday, Wednesday and Sunday.

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