Posted on February 23, 2011

History Hinders Diversification of Portland, Ore.

Amelia Templeton, National Public Radio, February 16, 2011

Oregon is one of only a dozen states where the majority of its residents aren’t from there. {snip}

The city’s entire population is growing, but Portland is still about 80 percent white, making it one of the most homogeneous metropolitan cities in the country.

Many of the migrants don’t have jobs, kids or a mortgage. So why do they keep coming?

‘A Mecca for the Misplaced’


Portland has scooped up 20-somethings from shrinking cities in the Northeast and the Midwest. It gets the kids who dream of being in a rock band. But the city has also drawn well-educated young professionals

“Talent is becoming more concentrated in some cities and moving away from other cities,” says Joe Cortright, an economist standing in the rain at the food cart.

Twenty years ago, the percent of people with college degrees in Portland was lower than the national average. Now, it’s more than 10 points higher–about 40 percent. And Cortright says the grads aren’t just coming for high-tech jobs.


Fewer Jobs, Lower Pay, High Migration

Oregon economist Christian Kaylor says he can think of only one explanation for the migration into Portland: the quality of life.

Kaylor says wages there are sometimes 20 percent lower than in Seattle or San Francisco. But people keep coming. In fact, Portland’s appeal is part of why the city’s unemployment rate tends to be about a point higher than the national average.

“In recessions, Portland tends to see population growth, even as we lose jobs,” Kaylor says. “So one of the reasons we have that higher unemployment rate is because people do continue to move here even as jobs disappear.”

Kaylor says the city’s strong brand as a livable place makes it more attractive to companies, too.


History: What’s Kept Portland White?

While Portland companies have a great pool of talent to draw on, it’s not a diverse pool. Portland is still about 80 percent white. There are historical reasons for that.

Oregon voted to outlaw slavery, but for 75 years voters also banned blacks from moving there.

During World War II, thousands of African-Americans came to Portland to work in the booming shipyards. But in 1948, the Columbia River flooded and permanently destroyed the neighborhood where the shipbuilders lived.

Today, jobs that offer a livable wage are not in ships, but rather in chips and sneakers–Intel and Nike.

Enrique Washington helps these large firms recruit minority candidates. He says his clients want a diverse staff to help them innovate and connect to consumers.

“The more diverse culture you have, the better your stock prices do,” Washington says.

While other cities are getting browner, Washington is bucking the trend.


Washington says Portland is slowly growing more diverse. There’s a lot of international migration, and about 10 percent of the city is Hispanic. But he says minority recruits worry there’s not a strong community to raise their children in if they relocate to Portland.

Struggling to Attract Diversity

Cities such as Portland that don’t have much diversity to start with struggle to attract it.