Last week I dropped my car off in Gresham for its 50,000-mile service. I boarded the MAX train to ride to work in downtown Portland and watched the changing ebb and flow of people as they boarded and left the train. At Gateway, I watched the crowd of David Douglas High School students. Amid the adolescent cacophony, I observed the variety of faces and languages, recalling a conversation with one of the district's teachers who described the social transformation she's witnessed over the past decade.
As I examined the TriMet map, I realized that I could continue to ride the train to Beaverton to buy Asian groceries at Uwajimaya, then continue to Hillsboro to buy ingredients for an authentic Mexican dinner at Su Casa Imports.
Then it hit me: Our traditional assumptions about the makeup of cities and suburbs no longer hold.
The social transformation occurring in our metropolitan regions is documented in a recent report by the Brookings Institution titled "The State of Metropolitan America."
My takeaway from this report is that our metropolitan region -- cities and suburbs, public and private sectors, schools and nonprofits -- must form a shared sense of our goals and a collective commitment to measuring our progress and capturing our opportunities.
Let's examine the social and economic trends that have led me to this conclusion. These trends hold important lessons for guiding us out of the recession and toward a broadly shared and sustainable economic prosperity.
Increasing diversity. After eight years of rapid growth, almost one quarter of our region's population is nonwhite or Hispanic. Almost one quarter of the children in our region have at least one foreign-born parent. Surprisingly, the fastest growth in the nonwhite and foreign-born populations has occurred in the region's suburbs, with growth rates exceeding 50 percent in each category.
Aging population. The baby boom generation is beginning to retire over the next decade, reducing the proportion of working to nonworking-aged people. Our ability to pay for schools and senior services will depend on expanding our work force to increase that ratio.
Uneven educational attainment. The Portland region has a higher college attainment rate than the national average. Yet a college degree -- often considered the ticket out of poverty -- remains elusive for a significant and growing segment of our population. While more than one-third of the adult white population in our region has earned a college degree, only one in five African Americans and one in eight Hispanics has done so. Only six of every 10 Hispanic adults in our region have earned a high school diploma. And last week we learned that only half of African American and Hispanic students in Oregon earn a high school degree in four years.
Declining income and changes in the geographic distribution of poverty. Nationwide, median household income has fallen over the past eight years, and Portland has experienced a similar trend. Household income has fallen more quickly in our region's suburbs than in Portland, and the child poverty rate in the suburbs has climbed to about 14 percent, approaching Portland's 18 percent.
Poverty is no longer a problem restricted to inner cities.
These trends imply that as a region and as a nation we are failing to invest in and benefit from our most important economic asset: human capital.
Commenting on these trends, syndicated columnist Neal Peirce observes that regional approaches -- cities and suburbs working together -- offer the greatest chance to navigate these social and economic transitions and create positive outcomes.
This has special significance in the Portland metro region. With the only elected regional government in the nation, you'd think that regional solutions to important economic issues would come naturally. After all, Metro coordinates regional planning and prioritizes regional infrastructure investments, and these decisions influence the location of private-sector investment, housing and jobs -- key factors in access to economic opportunity.
But the challenges we face go well beyond Metro's mission. Our economic success depends critically on integration of our fastest growing populations -- immigrants and ethnic minorities -- into the work force, and our colleges and universities. Closing income and education gaps means providing educational and related services to support students and families from preschool to higher education and beyond. This is impossible without aligning goals and coordinating efforts among dozens of educational and social service agencies that cross political and institutional boundaries.
Our ongoing economic challenges, reflected in last week's forecast of slumping state revenues, may tempt us to take a beggar-thy-neighbor attitude to solving these problems. Why should a suburban mayor care about economic conditions in Portland when his own citizens are demanding that he do more with less? Why should a Portland citizen work for economic opportunity for residents of Hillsboro?
We must resist negative pressures if we are to emerge from these transitions with a diverse and educated work force that is well prepared to contribute to our prosperity. These changes are affecting the city of Portland and its suburbs; they are transforming the workplaces of both public and private organizations. And the issues of increasing diversity, educational attainment, poverty and even health are closely connected. No single jurisdiction or institution commands the resources necessary to address these issues.
How can we best understand and use these interconnections without becoming overwhelmed by them?
Our collective efforts will be most productive if we create a common vision of a prosperous future, agree on how we will measure our progress and align our efforts toward improving our performance in critical areas. Efforts toward this end are emerging. Public- and private-sector leaders from across the region are collaborating on a "cradle to career" initiative that will establish criteria and develop strategies that begin with early learning experiences, continue throughout elementary and secondary school, and follow students into postsecondary education and graduation into a career.
A connected effort, led by Metro and Portland State University, will generate a more comprehensive set of measures. The Greater Portland-Vancouver Indicators project will engage a diverse group of leaders drawn from business, government, academic and civic sectors to identify broad measures of the status of our communities and to guide our collective policy efforts toward improvement.
Conducted thoughtfully, these efforts can help us effectively navigate our changing social conditions. Guided by the same star, we improve our chances of steering in the same direction and landing at a place of broad-based sustainable economic prosperity.
Sheila Martin is the director of the Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies and the Population Research Center at Portland State University.