Longstanding economic differences keep unemployment higher in Pierce County. But could Tacoma eventually benefit from Seattle's affordability issues?

Share story

The March unemployment rate for the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metropolitan area was 3.7 percent, down from 4.8 percent a year earlier, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. But a deeper look shows that not every part of the region is rising equally.

The Census Bureau breaks Seattle and Tacoma into separate metropolitan divisions, too. Thus, the Seattle-Bellevue-Everett metropolitan division’s jobless rate was 3.2 percent. Yet the rate for Tacoma-Lakewood was 5.8 percent. The state stood at 4.9 percent and the national rate was 4.6 percent, not seasonally adjusted.

This continues a long historical pattern. Going back to the late 1980s, when data began being compiled on a systematic basis, Pierce County’s unemployment was always higher than in Seattle’s King County. At the peak of the Great Recession, it was 11.9 percent vs. King County’s 9.5 percent.

The reasons are complicated. Pierce County was historically abandoned by some of its most important headquarters, notably Weyerhaeuser. Its economy remained tied to a shrinking industrial base while King County vaulted in the Microsoft and Amazon eras. The Seattle-Bellevue-Everett metro division also benefits from having the most Boeing workers. The City of Destiny won the first transcontinental railroad terminal in the 19th century, but Seattle was more on the make to become a business capital.

Tacoma is more affordable. Unfortunately, it’s too far away to play Oakland to Seattle’s San Francisco, and the means to bring large numbers of Pierce County residents to King County employment centers (more commuter rail, light rail) don’t yet exist. It’s even possible that Tacoma could benefit from businesses fleeing “socialist” Seattle or startups looking for cheaper digs. But this would be a long process.

Pierce County and Tacoma remain an important part of the Puget Sound economy, especially with the Port of Tacoma. It has gained some wins since the downturn, such as a State Farm regional center. But they will also continue to play catch-up to the larger city to the north (unless Seattle gets the biblical comeuppance for which so many seem to hope — but Tacoma is closer to our pet live volcano).


Today’s Econ Haiku:

Don wants Glass-Steagall

But don’t take that to the bank

See who’s to profit