You've seen this economic argument made, not just in this column but elsewhere: that Oregon's economic recovery has not been as robust in the state's rural areas as it has in its urban locales. And, overall, that tends to be true.

But the picture is substantially more nuanced than that, according to a new publication from the Oregon Employment Department, "Measuring Resilience Among Oregon Counties."  The authors of the paper, Nick Beleiciks of the Employment Department and Mallory Rahe, an Extension community economist and instructor at Oregon State University, paint a more detailed picture of how Oregon's counties fared during the Great Recession — and how they have bounced back during recovery. It's not a one-size-fits-all story, and the paper makes for intriguing reading for anyone interested in the state of the state's economy.

Rahe told me that she and Beleiciks have been interested in the notion of economic resilience — how do economies respond to economic changes like recession? — for years, and were struck by work that the economist Ron Martin did in a 2016 study of the United Kingdom. She pitched the idea of using some of Martin's ideas to analyze Oregon counties, and Beleiciks was game.

But it was challenging work, Rahe said: "The idea of resiliency is really interesting. The great challenge is, how do you try to measure it? All of these concepts are very challenging to actually put into data."

Among the questions the two examined were:

• Did a county lose a larger or smaller share of total employment than the state average loss of 8.5 percent between December 2007, the official start of the recession nationally, and January 2010, six months after the official end of the recession nationally? (Remember that Oregon, as usual, was a bit behind the curve in terms of the recession.) 

• Did a county gain back a smaller or larger share of total employment than the state average gain of 15.4 percent between February 2010 and September 2016?

In essence, the questions measure a county's resistance to economic shocks and its ability to recover. And the answers to those questions start to suggest that splitting Oregon into two divisions, rural and urban, doesn't tell the entire story. As Rahe put it: "The reality is just more complex."

For example, three counties in Oregon — Morrow, Hood River and Wheeler — actually gained jobs during the Great Recession. This isn't necessarily a huge shock, since those counties rely to some extent on agriculture, which tends to be counter-cyclical to the economic times. (Even this picture is complicated, the paper said, by the sheer number of different crops grown in Oregon, but, in general, counties with more farm employment sometimes were more resilient.)

Other counties that demonstrated some resistance to job loss during the recession included Sherman, Wasco and Gilliam. Metropolitan counties typically have less resistance to economic shocks and tended to lose more jobs. In Oregon, Benton County fared the best, the researchers found, likely due to increased hiring at OSU and the area's steady health care sector.

The paper also examines what's happened with average wages throughout Oregon since the start of the recession, and here the picture gets even more complicated: The state's real average wage has increased faster (8.7 percent) than the nation's (5.4 percent), although the average wage in Oregon still lags behind the nation's by more than $4,000 per year. In all, though, 25 of the state's counties have posted wage increases that outpace the national rate. And some rural counties have seen some of the fastest wage growth: Wages in Crook and Morrow counties have increased more than 25 percent.

At the same time, though, three counties (Gilliam, Sherman and Umatilla) had lower average wages in 2016 than they did at the recession's end. That comes with an asterisk: The relatively small economies in Gillian and Sherman got temporary boosts in the recession thanks to large construction projects.

Rahe offered a caution: Just because some counties were able to hold their own during the recession "doesn't mean they'll be resilient in the next recession."

Still, the new study suggests the difficulties county officials and residents face in deciding economic-development strategies: "What do you support?" Rahe asked. "The industry that's doing well or do you take a risk? These are very hard questions."

And these are questions that likely need to be debated at the local level, with the understanding that what works in one county or region may not be the best answer for another county or region — and with a statewide approach that offers room for the many different answers. (mm)

Mike McInally is the editor of the Albany Democrat-Herald and the Corvallis Gazette-Times. 


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