The Challenge of Seattle’s Emerging Society

Bruce Katz
Bruce Katz Founding Director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab - Drexel University

May 28, 2010

Seattle likes to compare itself to its neighbors. On issues from light rail to cycling-friendly streetscapes to the business climate and innovation, Puget Sound residents look to places like Portland and San Francisco and wonder whether the region needs improvement or is doing it better than others.

Generally, those are matters of political and public will, leavened of course with the realities of public finance.

But in the coming decade, the demographic changes that metropolitan Seattle will face should prompt a look at another set of places more like the region than its West Coast neighbors.

Over the 2000s, the Puget Sound region ranked above the national average on measures of growth, educational attainment and racial and ethnic diversity. The Seattle region faces challenges and opportunities distinct from those in the less-diverse Portland area, or the much slower-growing San Francisco Bay area.

New Brookings research instead counts Seattle among a series of growing, highly educated, diverse “Next Frontier” regions like Austin, Denver, and Washington, D.C.

Despite being bookended by two recessions, the past decade surely counts Seattle, like its demographic peers, as one of the success stories of the 2000s.

The region grew by nearly 10 percent from 2000 to 2008. People are moving and immigrating to Seattle and the number of married couples with children is growing — important factors as the baby boomers begin to retire next year.

As in other Next Frontier regions, however, the Seattle area’s overall demographic success masks deeper challenges.

On growth, the Puget Sound region has long grappled with issues of sprawl and density. Yet despite these efforts — and increasing public-transit use — the fastest-growing places in the region are on the suburban fringe, increasing commuting costs for the families that settle there and offsetting efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

On education, although 36 percent of all Puget Sound-area adults hold four-year college degrees — the 11th-highest rate among the nation’s 100 largest metro areas — the rate for whites in the region is now twice as high as for blacks and Hispanics. The region continues to import college graduates from elsewhere while its younger, more racially diverse residents are not attaining at anything close to the levels of their elders.

But as the baby boomers retire, what is bemoaned as the minority educational “achievement gap” will rapidly become a competitiveness gap. The result could be more of what we saw in the 2000s in Seattle — increasing wages for the highest earners and overall, masking the falling wages for those at the low end.

These challenges are not entirely new but they are intensifying as the nation goes through its biggest demographic transformation since the massive immigration of the early 20th century. Over the next 15 years, the United States is predicted to add a staggering 43 million residents, most of them minorities. All signs point to the Puget Sound region remaining on the front lines of that transformation.

To make the most of its demographic potential, Seattle’s first order of business should be increasing regional cohesion to address what are increasingly regionwide challenges.

For instance, nearly twice as many immigrants and poor people now live in the metro area’s suburbs as in its big cities. Older, larger jurisdictions like the city of Seattle and its nonprofits have valuable experience and institutional capacity to build upon in helping the region’s low-income families, and meeting the human-services needs of the children of immigrants.

The Seattle region can also look to its demographic peers for innovative strategies to address its challenges. One model is Denver’s regional council of governments, which successfully and with regional agreement built a major light-rail system very quickly. Likewise, despite the long tenure of growth management in the state, there are lessons in the Sacramento region’s Blueprint, which provides a comprehensive road map for addressing future growth in a fiscally and environmentally sustainable manner.

Seattle can also lead its peers in confronting its large educational disparities by race and geography common in Next Frontier metros as the Community Center for Education Results is attempting.

Similarly, Seattle already has a head start on many other places around the country thanks to the efforts of groups like OneAmerica (on immigrant and refugee communities) and the College Success Foundation. And like other Next Frontier metro areas, Seattle retains an economic advantage from its built-in stocks of human capital, innovative firms and research institutions, and livable urban core that attracts highly educated workers.

The Puget Sound region has made admirable efforts to capitalize on those strengths, but challenges ahead will require a regionwide commitment to maintain Seattle’s rank among the nation’s most demographically vibrant metro areas.