The debate over the future of Montgomery County – what kind of place we are, what kind of place we want to be and how we can pay to maintain our quality of life –has taken on a healthy sense of urgency during this election season. But I’m not sure that the public debate over these issues has provided a clear picture of our economic strengths and weaknesses, and – more importantly – where we need to focus our efforts to bolster our economic competitiveness.
Now that the primaries are over and dust is in the process of settling, I want to provide an assessment of our economic health and prospects. I hope to show that while we face serious challenges and cannot afford to be complacent, our county has enviable assets that should – if we confront our challenges directly – be useful in maintaining and even building on the quality of life we have come to expect. I will conclude by offering some observations about what our government can do to help bolster our economic prospects at a time of increasingly intense competition for high quality employers and jobs.
At this point, I should mention that I have benefitted tremendously from the research and ideas of the many amazingly smart people I work with at The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (and I cite their research frequently), but the opinions I am expressing here are mine alone.
Jobs and income: the good news
It is only a slight oversimplification to say that an individual’s economic condition can be reduced to two questions: (1) Do you have a job? and (2) How much money do you make? With regard to a city or county, when unemployment is low and wages are high, it is much easier to pay the bills for the infrastructure and services voters want and expect.
First for the good news — with regard to employment, we’re doing pretty well. Take a look at this chart:
This data shows that with an unemployment rate just a little over three percent, we have one of the lowest rates in the DC region or, for that matter, the country. In fact, we are approaching the theoretical limit of full employment, because some portion of the workforce is always between jobs.
Trends in job creation and business formation can be important indicators, but ultimately what matters is that people who want work can find it. Our unemployment rate is among the lowest in the region and about as close to full employment as it is possible to get.
As for the second question, how much money we make, here’s some data on median income levels:
Our median incomes are among the highest in the country. It’s true that some jurisdictions in the DC region have even higher median incomes, but this is not a contest where the jurisdiction with the highest income number wins and everyone else loses. What matters is whether our residents are generating enough income to provide for themselves and support the tax base.
If we can’t address our needs with median incomes of almost $100,000 a year, then the problem is not that our residents aren’t making enough money. Conservatives often make a similar point in arguing that taxes should be reduced, but they often overlook the fact that our income levels point to underlying economic strength.
Highly educated workforce
The final asset I want to highlight – the education and skills of our residents — is also the most important. Montgomery County has perhaps the most highly educated workforce in the country:
As you can see, we have a remarkably well-educated group of residents. In fact, these numbers are nothing short of amazing. More than half of our adult residents who were born outside the United States hold a college degree – and almost a quarter have a graduate or professional degree. Residents born in the United States have an even higher proportion of college and advanced degrees. There is nowhere else in the United States (including Fairfax County and other regional competitors) with so many highly educated people.
It would be hard to overstate the significance of this data because employers who require highly educated and skilled workers need to be places where those workers want to live. If we can continue to attract and retain these kinds of residents, we will a have a huge competitive advantage in the future. If we start to lose them, we will have problems.