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Figuring out who’s your economy, part II

In a previous post, I laid out some general guidelines for mapping and assessing a local economy. Now let’s get specific. For the sake of time, I’m going to do Seattle.

Find your economy1. Population: Using Census data, I find that the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area clocked in above 3.5 million in 2011, an increase of 1.5 percent. Population growth means more workers and customers; it also means added costs in infrastructure and public services. Given the low mobility in the aftermath of the Great Recession, this growth looks about right. Comparing to peers (Seattle is No. 15), San Diego (No. 17) grew 1.1 percent; Phoenix (No. 14) grew 1.3 percent and Minneapolis (No. 16) grew 1 percent. So Seattle is growing at an average rate.

Paccar Trucks plant

Paccar distributes commercial vehicles in the U.S. and Canada. Photo: Paccar Inc.

2. Major employers: Almost every place has an economic-development organization, government or chamber of commerce that can provide this critical information. For Seattle, I used the city site. This is one of the two major aerospace centers in the world, as well as a world-class software center and top-performing biotech cluster. It has major headquarters of dozens of companies, from Microsoft and Amazon to truck builder Paccar. The big employers tell much about the quality of a city and metro economy. They disproportionately affect the ability to draw talent and capital, and small business depends on them for everything from vendor jobs to providing the talent for startups. They are often the center of clusters, or “ecosystems.” On the other hand, a metro with government or health-care providers (as opposed to research) predominating is usually facing troubles.

3. Gross domestic product: The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis provides this measure of total goods and services produced. For 2010, it shows $231 billion vs. $220 billion in 2007 on the eve of the recession. By comparison, Phoenix posted around $191 billion. This, even though the metro area is more populous. This might be a lead to a story about how Seattle punches above its weight, as well as how it has recovered from the downturn.

4. Trade and globalization. Seattle is a port city and has two world-class industry clusters, but every metro is operating in the international economy. A beginning is the indispensable TradeStats Express from the U.S. International Trade Administration. This interactive site allows you to track state exports by country, type and year. Data are also available for 367 metro areas. I track the value of exports by year — what’s growing and what’s not — as well as by country. In the specific case of Seattle, I also follow the container and other traffic at the ports of Seattle and Tacoma.

payday loans

By Flickr user Taber Andrew Bain

5. Wages and income. This is a complex and sometimes contentious topic. Here are some basics. The Labor Department looks at state and county average weekly wages by quarter (this map can be reset for other metrics, such as employment). Context is critical: Measuring the data over time, its growth and measured against inflation and the national average. Going deeper is beyond the time available to the average business journalist. That’s why economists are here, to explain how wage growth has slowed and stagnated over 30 years. Many locales perform deeper studies on their wages compared with peer metros; snag this if you can. The Census Bureau’s State and County Quick Facts should be among every journalist’s bookmarks. Among other things, it provides median household income and per-capita income. Not surprisingly, Seattle does very well in these measures. (Beware of writing about percentage growth for a certain period; what matters is the bottom line over several years, measured against peers).

6. The social economy. Quick Facts shows data on poverty, high-school graduates and people age 25 and above with BA degrees. Unfortunately, this is at the county level, so metro comparisons may be imprecise. The Brookings Institution has attempted to crunch much economic data by metro level into this interactive map. Another important resource of social well-being, which can take you to the state level, is the Annie E. Casey Foundation Kid’s Count report. Yet another is the U.S. Agriculture Department’s food insecurity report. You can also look into food stamp use by state.  These and other metrics, measured over time and against national averages and peers, can tell you how your metro is making use or abuse of its human capital.


Photo by iStock

7. Unemployment. The BLS provides a wealth of data on employment and unemployment. Metro data typically trails state data. Thus, for December, Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue unemployment stood at 6.7 percent, a full percentage point below the state level (breaking out Tacoma, its rate is 8.5 percent, a sign of economic underperformance that inspired a column). But remember, this rate doesn’t count discouraged workers or those working part time but wanting fulltime work. Use the broader U-6 measure, and Washington state was a stunning 16.9 percent. Digging deep into joblessness will be important as what I call the Great Disruption continues to keep unemployment high.

8. Competitiveness. Economic-development organizations can provide some useful overviews of a region’s assets (here’s one from the Economic Development Council of Seattle and King County). Even better is if you can find an organization that uses gold standard benchmarks, such as those done every few years by the San Diego Association of Governments. But that’s rare. The economic question is always, a la the late Ed Koch, “How are we doin’?” The answer is usually fluid and incomplete. In many places, it will be unwelcome to the local boosters. The blogosphere is full of lists; most are misleading and incomplete and a few downright wrong. Seek gold-standard metrics. A few worthwhile sources:

I could go on. But deadline calls for a Sunday story on the … economy.



In Economy, Featured.

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