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Migration Economies and Portland

Most people don't move to Portland for the usual reason—employment. The City of Roses attracts talent with a focus on urban amenities and regional planning. But that strategy is easy to replicate elsewhere.
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Portland's Tom McCall Waterfront Park seen from the north. (PHOTO: CACOPHONY/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Portland's Tom McCall Waterfront Park seen from the north. (PHOTO: CACOPHONY/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Migrants moving into a region stimulate economic growth. Newcomers demand more housing and local services, to name a few ways the inbound impact the economy. Over the course of the 20th century, the relationship between metros and migration transformed:

At the time of the Great Migration in the 1920s—when more than two million African Americans abandoned the South for industrial centers in other regions—less-educated individuals were more likely to migrate in search of better lives. Today, the opposite is true: The more education a person has, the more mobile he or she is. College graduates have the highest mobility of all, workers with a community-college education are less mobile, high-school graduates are even less and dropouts are the least mobile of all.

I've quoted this passage from economist Enrico Moretti before. During the early part of the century, the manufacturing boom attracted a flood of workers. See Pittsburgh. Metros needed bodies. During the late part of the century, regions attracted workers in order to fuel an innovation boom. See Portland. Metros needed minds. As Moretti details in his book, The New Geography of Jobs, more people were directly involved in the Manufacturing Economy than are directly involved in the Innovation Economy. The influx was a byproduct of the economic expansion. Now, the influx is vital to the economic expansion.

For Portland, regional planning and urban amenities comprise the economic development strategy. Build it and they (talent) will come. That's quite different from the usual approach, which is job creation and the attraction of employment. People move to Portland for other reasons:

Portland has attracted many newcomers that have moved to the region without necessarily having a job. Housing prices increased because of high demand and as a result of a successful and prospering economy. These newcomers have added a lot of vitality and vibrancy to the Portland region, but often cannot afford modest places to live. The city of Portland is interested, not only to attract these groups, but also to retain them in the city, as this is considered to be essential for the city's economic future. In this perspective, improving the provision of affordable housing can be seen as part of an economic development strategy that is directly related to issues of quality of life. However, the established companies such as Nike, Intel, etc., that benefit from this group's presence, should have developed an interest to questions of affordable housing, but their efforts are still mainly directed toward improving education and workforce development infrastructure.

In Portland, there is a disconnect between the demand for housing and employment to pay for it. Meanwhile, industry (Nike, Intel, etc.) is keenly interested in talent production. Why? Because competition for knowledge workers is fierce. What Portland has done with regional planning and urban amenities can be replicated elsewhere, places with job-centric economic development strategies. Talent is dear, increasingly expensive.

Pittsburgh has been focused on "improving education and workforce development infrastructure" for decades. The metro does not depend on migrants to increase the quality of the workforce. In fact, Pittsburgh produces the talent that Portland desperately needs. There is a glut of knowledge workers who are relatively inexpensive, an attractive proposition for the likes of Nike and Intel.