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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Recent income growth in Spokane outpaces state, nation

Spokane’s skyline is shown in this 2018 photo. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane’s skyline is shown in this 2018 photo. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A few weeks back, the Census Bureau released some new estimates of incomes by ZIP code that showed Spokane continues to have some of the poorest neighborhoods in the state.

But those numbers, the subject of a recent column, paint a limited picture.

Yes, we have neighborhoods struggling with poverty here – and especially when you compare incomes to the West Side. But what those figures don’t show is the broader reality of what’s happened with income in Spokane over the past five years: It’s grown remarkably overall – more than the rest of the county, the rest of the state and the rest of the nation.

Think of it as the $14,700 difference.

That’s how much the median household income has grown in the city of Spokane between 2013 and 2018.

During the same period, incomes nationwide grew by about $9,600.

“Spokane kind of kicked ass and took names,” said Gavin Cooley, the head dollars-and-cents guy at City Hall under two mayors.

Furthermore, the most recent year – between 2017 and 2018 – was particularly strong, with median household incomes growing by 16%. That’s a leap of more than $7,500 in one year.

Patrick Jones, the executive director of the Institute for Public Policy and Economic Analysis at Eastern Washington University, referred to the recent income growth here as the best economic year in a generation.

“As a business owner friend told me,” Jones wrote in an email, “2018 was a very good year.”

The recent income growth comes at a time of great progress and reason for positivity in the city, despite the gloomy nature of our noisy sky-is-falling political campaigns. Cooley sees the income growth as the single most important indicator of community health, bolstered in part by a variety of effective, efficient initiatives that emerged from the city government – divided though it sometimes was – of the past eight years.

Innovative and money-saving infrastructure improvements. Continued progress on street fixes citywide. A revitalization of Riverfront Park. More cops on the streets. An incredible expansion of the park, plaza, trail and overlook access to the Spokane River, with the newest plaza in front of the library unveiled on Friday.

Cooley sees it as a high point not unlike the Expo era. And he’s concerned that what followed that era was a sinking in the city’s fortunes – as shown in incomes that didn’t keep pace with the nation.

For now, though, our numbers look better than they have in ages.

Five years ago, Spokane’s median household income was 33% lower than the national figure, according to a comparison of census figures Cooley provided.

In 2018, we lagged the nation by just 15%.

We’re now within hailing distance of the national median household income – at $54,085 here, compared to just under $62,000 nationally.

“If we have five more years of growth, we’ll be above the national average,” Cooley said. “The last time we were on par with the U.S. was before Expo.”

Between 2013 and 2018, the average annual rise in the median household income citywide was roughly twice the national increase – 6.7% a year in Spokane, compared to 3.5% nationally.

And, though the city still is dealing with higher-than-average poverty levels, the typical Spokane household has seen its income grow more than the county at large or Spokane Valley, and more than the robust statewide average, as well.

Here are a few more statistics on income growth:

    The annual growth in median household income was 4.8% in the county at large, 3.7% in the Spokane Valley and 4.9% statewide.

    Since 2005, income has grown 56% in the city, compared to 34% nationally, 43% in Spokane County and 50% statewide.

    The increase in the median income over the most recent five-year period was $12,207 countywide, $8,574 in Spokane Valley and $15,668 statewide.

It can be easy to forget – or fail to notice in the first place – what’s been happening in this city recently. It’s not a disaster. Not downtown, not citywide. Not by a long shot.

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