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Portland in Focus: A Profile from Census 2000

Executive Summary

Portland and its suburbs experienced significant economic growth and demographic change during the 1990s, a trend underscored by Census 2000.


In the early 20th century, Portland served as a gateway for immigrants from Western Europe, China and Japan. Today, the city has re-emerged as a destination for immigrants from Mexico, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe. Portland’s foreign-born population more than doubled in size during the 1990s, and contributed to the city’s youthful profile. At the same time, Portland’s natural setting and robust job market in the 1990s made it a destination for domestic migrants as well. The city gained considerable numbers of 25- to 34-year-olds over the decade even as their numbers declined nationwide.

Portland’s regional economy surged in the 1990s, underpinned by high levels of education and labor force participation. Among the 23 Living Cities, Portland had the third-fastest growth in household incomes, the seventh-highest share of college graduates in 2000, and the third-lowest poverty rate. Still, one in four blacks and Hispanics in Portland lives below the poverty line, and African American households earn about $15,000 less on average than Asian and white households. These economic disparities have likely worsened since Census 2000 was conducted, as the city’s unemployment rate has risen significantly. Minority families in the Portland area meanwhile may be facing increasing difficulties obtaining affordable housing, as rents increased rapidly during the 1990s.

Along these lines and others, then, Portland in Focus: A Profile from Census 2000 concludes that:

  • Portland and its suburbs grew rapidly over the last two decades. After robust 19 percent growth in the 1980s, the City of Portland grew even faster in the 1990s, gaining more than 90,000 residents over the decade. Most of the city’s neighborhoods added residents as population citywide increased by 21 percent. At the same time, the growth of Portland’s suburbs accelerated. Areas outside the central city grew by over one-quarter during the 1990s, the fifth-fastest rate of suburban growth among the 23 Living Cities. Still, the central city retains about half of the region’s employment, and nearly three-fourths of Portland residents work at jobs within the city.

  • Racial and ethnic diversity is on the rise in Portland due to increasing immigration. Among the 23 Living Cities, Portland has the lowest proportion of non-white and Hispanic residents. Yet the picture is changing. The city today has nearly equal populations of black, Asian, and Hispanic residents, who together represent 20 percent of all Portlanders. The city also claims the second-highest proportion of multiracial residents among the Living Cities. Driving this growing diversity was a more-than-doubling of Portland’s foreign-born population during the decade. The city’s immigrants themselves are quite diverse: Thirty-eight percent hail from Asian nations, and Europe and Latin America each contribute one-quarter of Portland’s foreign-born. As in many metropolitan areas, however, an increasing number of immigrants in Portland are settling directly in the suburbs, which gained more than five times as many foreign-born residents in the 1990s as the central city.

  • Residents of Portland are young and mobile. Baby Boomers aged 35 to 54 are by far the nation’s largest age cohorts, but people in their late 20s and early 30s make up Portland’s largest age groups. Because of this age tilt, households in Portland are considerably smaller on average than those in most U.S. cities, typically consisting of singles and childless couples. In addition to attracting young people from abroad, Portland was a magnet for domestic migrants in the U.S. during the 1990s. More than a quarter of Portland residents lived in a different city five years prior, and the city gained a significant number of 25- to 34-year-olds even as their numbers declined nationwide. Still, suburbs were the destination for most new households in the Portland region; areas outside the city gained 30,000 married couples with children over the decade.

  • High levels of work contribute to the economic success of most Portland residents. Households in the upper parts of Portland’s income distribution increased in number during the 1990s, so that the city’s median household income increased by 17 percent—the third-fastest rise among the 23 Living Cities. The improving economic profile of city residents owed to the region’s robust economic conditions in the 1990s, and particularly to its specialization in higher-paying service industry professions, as well as to the nearly 70 percent of Portland adults who are in the labor force. At the same time, racial differences undercut these trends somewhat. As elsewhere, blacks and Hispanics in Portland significantly lag whites on educational attainment, and most earn only moderate incomes. Worsening economic conditions since Census 2000 was conducted have likely exacerbated these differences, as the unemployment rate in Portland has risen to nearly 9 percent.

  • Homeownership rose in Portland during the 1990s for only some groups, and housing costs increased substantially for renters. Portland experienced a considerable rise in its homeownership rate during the 1990s, and 56 percent of its residents owned their own homes in 2000. Gains among the city’s white and Asian households drove these increases, however. The homeownership rate for blacks remained the same, and that for Hispanics dropped, perhaps owing to recent immigration. At the same time, in-migration to Portland and rising household incomes in the 1990s produced a rapid run-up in rents. Median rental costs increased 19 percent between 1990 and 2000, the second-highest such rise among the 23 Living Cities. These costs highlight what may be a growing need for affordable housing among the city’s renters, nearly 41,000 of whom (41 percent) paid at least 30 percent of their income on rent in 2000.

By presenting the indicators on the following pages, Portland in Focus: A Profile from Census 2000 seeks to give readers a better sense of where Portland and its residents stand in relation to their peers, and how the 1990s shaped the city, its neighborhoods, and the entire Portland region. Living Cities and the Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy hope that this information will prompt a fruitful dialogue among city and community leaders about the direction Portland should take in the coming decade.

Portland Data Book Series 1

Portland Data Book Series 2

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