Adam Davis: Connect the Dots for True Economic View

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Adam Davis—January 20, 2015
Portland Tribune

News anchors and commentators are driving me crazy these days, even more than usual. The latest is how well the economy is doing. You’d think we’re back to the Roaring Twenties with the way they talk about job creation, falling unemployment rates, falling gasoline prices, rising home prices, and new stock market highs.

I even heard that because of how well things are going, and how the future looks even better, that the economy may not be a major issue during the next election cycle. Really? Well, if it isn’t, it should be. Voters have a long list of economic and economy-related concerns that they want their government officials to do something about. This is as true today as it was in 2008 at the beginning of the recession, despite reported signs of improvement.

The rosy picture painted for us by the media in their selective use of government statistics does not match what DHM Research sees and hears — and has been seeing and hearing for years — from surveys and focus groups with Oregonians. Granted, we do hear parroted back to us what the media is chirping about, with a majority of Oregonians thinking the economy is improving, but we also hear about newly-created jobs being part-time, employers not paying benefits, the rising cost of health care and other necessities, and income inequality.

In rural Oregon, the mood is especially grim. We hear about no jobs and generally poor social and economic conditions. Then there’s underemployment, which a strong majority of Oregonians consider to be as serious or more serious a problem than unemployment.

It is no wonder a bad economy is still one of the most important problems Oregonians want their state and local government officials to do something about. But there are other problems as well, which aren’t always presented as economic (because they don’t refer directly to the economy or jobs), but perhaps should be.

From younger Oregonians, we hear about rising tuition costs and student debt. From moms and dads we hear about children moving back home after college because they cannot make it on their own — the boomerang generation. Parents worry that their children will be materially worse off in adulthood than they were.

Many Oregonians worry that their jobs might be eliminated because of technology, outsourcing, or through a merger or consolidation, and they ask themselves, “What would I do?” Expressed fears include bankruptcy, age discrimination, and not having the skills to compete in the job market.

Another source of insecurity is feeling financially unprepared for retirement. For members of the “sandwich generation,” the anxieties are magnified when having to care for aging parents while at the same time supporting their own children.

And from Oregon businessmen and women, in addition to comments about the challenges of meeting payrolls and making money, we hear about “indirect” economic issues, including failing transportation, water and sewer systems, not being able to find qualified employees, and the impact of climate change on the future of the agriculture and timber industries.

Finally, there are Oregon’s student performance and poverty statistics, which are not good compared with other states. Many Oregonians are aware of the rankings, which fuel their concerns about the current and future health of our economy.

It is all connected. Many of the issues Oregonians are concerned about, or use as indicators of how we’re doing as a state, are connected to the economy. We may not see these relationships until someone helps us connect the dots. But connecting the dots doesn’t usually make for dramatic headlines; rather, it takes good reporting, with the associated investment of money and time. The economy remains the No. 1 issue.

Dear media: Help us connect the dots.

Adam Davis, who has been conducting opinion research in Oregon for more than 35 years, is a founding principal of DHM Research