Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Shift in power from rural to urban Oregon has left isolated counties with few economic opportunities

Harney County (Wikipedia map)
Some residents in isolated rural Harney County, Oregon—where an armed protest continues at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge—blame the government for losing their once thriving economy to urban areas and rural counties located near urban centers, Kirk Johnson reports for The New York Times. A study by nonprofit research group Headwaters Economics found that half of Oregon jobs are in three counties in and around Portland. "Counties like Harney—with 7,126 people in an area about the size of Massachusetts—are too far from those urban centers to catch the economic uplift, the study said. So the population grows ever older, poorer and less educated, and opportunities continue to dry up."

Harney County, which has 10 percent fewer jobs today than in 1979, is part of a national shift in poverty, Johnson writes. Since the last 1960s "poverty rates fell or remained stable across the Northeast, South and Midwest—but rose significantly across the West, a Pew Research Center study said in 2014 . . . Harney County has lost 4 percent of its population just since 2010, according to U.S. census figures, even as the state’s population, especially in and around Portland, has surged."

"What happened was a steep downturn, especially in the timber industry, which has all but disappeared," Johnson writes. "Oregon lost about three-fourths of its timber mills between 1980 and 2010; Harney County lost all seven. Changes in the wood industry were clearly also having an effect over those years, with more wood buyers shopping in Canada and more mills becoming automated, but many people here also said they thought the U.S. Forest Service did not fight back to save the mills and jobs."

In Harney County, 60 percent of the pay earned in the county now comes "from the public sector—including schools and federal management jobs at the 188,000-acre wildlife refuge—this was the most government-dependent county in Oregon in 2013, according the most recent analysis by the state," Johnson writes. "But the sense that government—not just federal but state as well—no longer hears the voice of places like this echoes through the community, even among those who wish (the armed protesters) would go home." (Read more)

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