The big red R is back on top of Seattle’s old Rainier Brewery, and naturally people went all nostalgic. Apparently, few raised in Seattle and environs can forget those misty winter nights driving up I-5, spotting that big R, and somehow getting a warm feeling. Maybe, there’s symbolism there people with Seattle roots feel in their bones.
The old big R came down in 2000, a time of economic transformation. The dot-com boom was peaking, Seattle was the epicenter of the new tech economy, making millionaires left and right. The old middle-class Seattle, the flannel-shirt-and-lunchbucket Seattle, where a job at Boeing meant security and prosperity and buying a house, where drinking Rainier and watching the Seahawks at the corner tavern was popular entertainment — it was still there, but fading in importance. And the Rainier Brewing Co. was swallowed up in corporate mergers and the brewery building was turned over to the roasters of upscale coffee, who replaced the red R with a green T for Tully’s.
The big R is back, but what of the middle class? It struggles, in Seattle and nearly everywhere. The middle’s share of the workforce is shrinking. Analyst Joshua Wright writing at Newgeography.com quotes the Federal Reserve, which says the share of middle-skill jobs, requiring less than a bachelor’s degree but more than a high school diploma, dropped from a 25 percent market share in 1985 to 15 percent today. Mid-wage jobs, by definition paying $13.84 to $21.13 per hour, account for 25 percent of jobs created since 2010. High-wage jobs accounted for 29 percent, and low-wage 46 percent, nearly half.
In Washington, mid-wage jobs account for just 19 percent of jobs created since 2010, said Wright, which ranks 34th among states. The top middle-class creator was Wyoming, at 45 percent of new jobs, followed by Iowa (37 percent), North Dakota (36 percent), and Michigan, 35 percent. The bottom — New York (13 percent), New Hampshire, New Jersey and Virginia ( all 14 percent).
On a city-by-city basis the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metro area compares a little better. According to statistics published by Joel Kotkin at Newgeography.com and Forbes, the Seattle area came up 26th nationally in middle-skill jobs since the Great Recession. In Seattle, industrial employment is actually expanding, he said, but the Seattle metro area lost 3.8 percent of its middle-skill jobs since 2007. That’s better than Portland (-5.4 percent), Los Angeles (-6.1 percent), or miserable Las Vegas (-16.1 percent). The cities gaining middle-skill jobs were led by Austin, Texas, with a gain of 7.6 percent, followed by Houston, San Antonio, Dallas-Fort Worth and Oklahoma City.
The price for ignoring the middle, Kotkin says, is the creation of a two-tiered world, a “new feudalism,” as in California, where the middle class is the minority and society is dominated by the lords of the information age and the vast group of low-wage workers who provide their services. “If we fail to stem the erosion of middle-income jobs we will be faced with a continued descent into a Latin American style society divided largely between an affluent elite and multitudes of the poor, with a thin layer in the middle,” wrote Kotkin.
No wonder so many people, led by Gov. Jay Inslee, are intent on keeping aerospace jobs in Washington. Inslee recently announced he would propose extending the state aerospace tax incentives through 2040 if Boeing assembles its 777X and fabricates its composite wings in Washington. The incentives brought $1.4 billion in tax savings since 2003, when Boeing was enticed to build its 787 Dreamliner here, not a high price considering Boeing injects about $70 billion a year into the state economy, analysts say. “It’s tens of thousands of jobs, for decades. We intend to be competitive,” Inslee said.
Hope they succeed, and that everyone in and out of Seattle can be cognizant of how public policy affects job creation. We need more in he middle, now more than ever.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 665-1163.