Results from Census 2000 confirm that Seattle prospered economically during the 1990s, but also highlight the challenges that confront lower-income families in a high-cost city.
Buoyed by a robust job market and unrivaled natural setting, Seattle’s population increased more rapidly in the 1990s than in the 1980s. While suburban growth contributed to further decentralization in the Seattle metro area, the city gained nearly 50,000 new residents, and retains about half of the jobs held by area workers. Seattle experienced significant growth in both younger and older adults, and witnessed considerable new immigration from Asia, Europe, and Latin America. By and large, though, Seattle remains a relatively “childless” city dominated by married couples without children and singles.
Seattle’s overall economic profile was very healthy in the 1990s, underpinned by the highest education level among the 23 Living Cities, and one of the highest rates of adult labor force participation. Median household income grew rapidly over the decade, and the poverty rate—already low by large-city standards—dropped. Still, more than one in five blacks and Hispanics in Seattle lives below the poverty line, and the city’s African American households earn about $18,000 less on average than their white counterparts. What is more, the region’s economic growth in the 1990s generated a rapid run-up in housing costs that saddled more renters with high housing cost burdens, and resulted in a stagnant—or falling—homeownership rate for most groups. The economic downturn since Census 2000 may have mitigated these cost issues, but has undoubtedly depressed incomes for some of the city’s vulnerable workers.
Along these lines and others, then, Seattle in Focus: A Profile from Census 2000 concludes that:
- Seattle’s population increased significantly during the 1990s, although the region continues to decentralize. Seattle added 47,000 residents during the 1990s, a 9 percent population increase that doubled its growth rate in the 1980s. Most of the city’s neighborhoods added residents over the decade. At the same time, growth in Seattle’s suburbs continued apace—areas outside the central city grew by 22 percent over the decade. Despite rapid growth in the outer suburbs, Seattle remains an employment center for its region—nearly half of area workers are employed in the central city, as are three in four city residents.
- Immigration is increasing Seattle’s racial and ethnic diversity. Among the 23 Living Cities, Seattle has the second-lowest proportion of non-white and Hispanic residents. Yet the picture is changing. Today, 27 percent of Seattle’s population identifies as black, Asian, or Hispanic. The city also claims the highest proportion of multiracial residents among the Living Cities. Driving this growing diversity was a 40 percent increase in Seattle’s foreign-born population during the decade. The city’s immigrants themselves are quite diverse: among the top ten source countries are the Philippines, Vietnam, Mexico, and China. As in many metropolitan areas, however, an increasing number of immigrants to Seattle are settling directly in the suburbs, which gained roughly five times as many foreign-born residents in the 1990s as the central city.
- Residents of Seattle are young, mobile, and mostly childless. By a wide margin, people in their late 20s and early 30s make up Seattle’s largest age groups. Because of this age tilt, fewer than 20 percent of city households contain children, and Seattle households are smaller than those in any other large U.S. city. In addition to attracting young people from abroad, Seattle was a magnet for domestic migrants in the U.S. during the 1990s—nearly one-third of Seattle residents lived in a different city five years prior. Still, suburbs were the destination for most new households in the region; while singles and other nonfamilies grew in the central city, Seattle’s suburbs added over 100,000 households of all types over the decade.
- High levels of education and work contributed to the economic success of Seattle residents in the 1990s. The number of households in the upper parts of Seattle’s income distribution increased rapidly during the 1990s, so that the city’s median household income increased by 16 percent—four times the rate of growth nationally. The improving economic profile of city residents owed to the region’s robust economic conditions in the 1990s, particularly its specialization in higher-paying service industry professions, and the 70 percent of Seattle adults who are in the labor force. The city’s high levels of education further undergirded its economic growth; nearly half of Seattle adults hold a bachelor’s degree, the highest proportion among the 23 Living Cities. At the same time, racial differences undercut these trends somewhat. As elsewhere, African Americans in Seattle significantly lag whites on educational attainment, and most earn only moderate incomes. Worsening economic conditions since Census 2000 was conducted may have exacerbated these differences.
- Homeownership stagnated in Seattle, while renters faced increasing cost burdens. Despite a large increase in median household income in the 1990s, the homeownership rate in Seattle fell slightly over the decade. As at the beginning of the decade, fewer than half of the city’s households are owners. The shares of African American and Asian households who own a home dropped modestly, while the rate for Hispanics plummeted from 32 percent to 25 percent, perhaps owed to the arrival of Latin American immigrants during the decade. Meanwhile, in response to growing population and incomes, rents in Seattle skyrocketed by 18 percent in the 1990s. As a result, renters with moderate incomes struggled to meet their housing costs. These housing burdens not only make it difficult for lower-income families to pay for the necessities of life, but also impede their ability to save for homeownership or other assets. The economic downturn over the past two years has slowed growth in the city’s housing costs, but rent burdens likely remain high due to economic losses that lower-wage workers have likely suffered.
By presenting the indicators on the following pages, Seattle in Focus: A Profile from Census 2000 seeks to give readers a better sense of where Seattle and its residents stand in relation to their peers, and how the 1990s shaped the city, its neighborhoods, and the entire Seattle 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 Seattle should take in the coming decade.