Fewer Local Jobs, but More Employed in Crook County

by Damon Runberg

March 9, 2017

I recently gave a presentation out in Prineville discussing the long-term structural economic changes in Crook County. In many ways Crook County resembles the typical rural Oregon county. It is an aging community that has been slow to recover from the devastating recession. Crook County’s total nonfarm employment totals are amongst the lowest in the state relative to their pre-recession peak. As of January 2017 employment levels remain down around 20 percent from the previous peak in 2007. To put that another way, more than 1 in 5 jobs are still missing from Crook County’s economy.

A different story begins to emerge when you focus on the number of employed residents in Crook County rather than the number of nonfarm jobs at Crook County businesses. The number of employed residents is only down around 6 percent from the pre-recession peak. Why the discrepancy? The number of employed is based on where an individual lives. The number of jobs is counted based on where a business is located. In Crook County’s situation the faster recovery in the number of employed is likely due to residents finding work in Deschutes County, one of the fastest growing economies in the West. We know there has been growth in commuting based on Census estimates that show the average commute time for Crook County residents is up nearly 12 percent over the past two years. The Census Bureau also estimates that over 46 percent of Crook County’s workforce travels greater than 24 miles to work. That is a significantly higher rate of long-distance commuting than Yamhill County, a county on the outskirts of Portland and Salem, where only 24 percent of workers commute over 24 miles. The growth in commuters is likely not a new story. The number of employed residents is up over 7 percent from 2001, while the number of jobs in Crook County businesses is down nearly 8 percent.
Why live in Crook County and commute? For starters Crook County is one of the more beautiful places in the state with ample sunshine, deep river canyons, the quiet Ochoco Mountains, and ample outdoor recreation. There is a very high quality of life in Crook County with more space than Bend with its rapidly expanding population and increasing density.

Crook County is also much more affordable than places like Bend or even Redmond. The average monthly mortgage payment in Crook County only represents around 28 percent of the median monthly wage, compared with nearly 40 percent for Deschutes County. Rentals are also considerably more affordable in Crook County (see graph). Another measure of affordability comes from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology/ where they developed a living wage calculator. Their calculator used the same costs for food, child care, medical, and transportation for both Crook and Deschutes counties. The one area where there was a departure was housing where a family of one adult and one child could save nearly $1,200 a year on housing in Crook County (an annual savings of 12 percent compared with Deschutes County).
Crook residents commuting to Deschutes County is likely the largest contributing factor behind the number of employed recovering faster than jobs in local businesses. Another factor is likely a large share of self-employed residents (or nonemployer establishments). When these nonemployers, which are most often sole proprietor businesses, are combined with nonfarm jobs they represent around 20 percent of Crook County’s employment base. The share of nonemployers is significantly higher than the state (13%) and the fourth highest share among Oregon’s 36 counties. Although not a rapidly growing sector of the economy, nonemployer establishments grew by around 3 percent over the past decade.  

Crook County’s recovery doesn’t look as doom and gloom as the nonfarm payroll job count would make you think. Residents are finding work, just not necessarily within businesses located in Crook County. This begs the question: Is it a good or bad thing to have a high rate of commuters? More people finding work and declining levels of unemployment are both very good things. Central Oregon is one “laborshed” meaning businesses can and do hire from the combined pool of labor within Crook, Deschutes, and Jefferson counties. You could also make the argument that being a net exporter of labor (sending out more commuters than you receive from other communities) can provide similar benefits as a traditional traded-sector industry. Those commuters are making their money in a different community (Bend or Redmond) and bringing their paycheck home to spend in Prineville at restaurants, grocery stores, and at the local brewpub. Many rural communities are so isolated from larger employment centers that commuting is not an option. As Bend and Redmond continue to grow expect to see increases in the number of employed residents in Crook County.

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