(By Brandon Nobles/Brandon is a graduate of the University of Washington with a degree in English and Humanities. He is a current online teacher and is the Research Coordinator for the 7th LD Democratic Central Committee)
While researching for a column on the potential long-term effects of the minimum wage increase on the Stevens County economy, I stumbled upon something even more disconcerting. As we all know, many business owners in the county were very reluctant to adapt to the minimum wage increase due to it cutting into dwindling sales that make it hard for a business to even survive, let alone turn a profit an owner can live on. These local owners cite the minimum wage increase as another big government regulation strangling a rural economy. And they do have genuine complaints as forcing a wage increase on such a small economy could have detrimental effects compared to the same wage enforcement in larger economies such as Seattle or Tacoma. However, with the discovery of how long-term demographic shifts will play and influence this county’s business sector, the minimum wage increase should be the least of worries for Stevens County business owners. This demographic shift is bringing in a storm for this county, and if these business owners wish to carry on or even possibly expand, they will need to look for different avenues in how they bring money in.
Looking at labor demographics, one can see that almost half of Stevens County’s working population is 45 to 62 years of age, with about 40 percent of the total county population above 45. The disturbing aspect of this is that nearly half the population in 10 years will be entering retirement age, be already retired, or the unfortunate case of needing to be put into a nursing home or worse. Now of course many do not care to think along these lines, but it is inevitable, and the cold logic of capitalism shows that for an economy to run, one has to have a working population with disposable income, essentially a constant flow of money from consumers. However, in a decade, almost half of Stevens County’s current consumers either will have their current pay slashed down to a retirement pension, even lower Social Security retirement payments, or simply will not be participating in the economy anymore due to retiring to a different locale, entering a nursing home, or death, and this population shift and loss spells out financial doom for this region.
Of course most regions deal with this, but Stevens County is different. One needs a socially and economically dynamic young population to replace the older generation. However for Stevens County, demographics become a problem again. About a quarter of the remaining population are under the age of 18. While many in this age group will be adults within the next decade, they will be unable to balance out the coming labor and population loss, and that is with the optimistic (and unfortunately wishful-thinking) perspective that they all decide to stay and make their home in Stevens. This of course will not happen as Stevens has for the past couple of decades suffered from a massive youth drain. Once graduated from High School, many graduates find that Stevens accords to them very little in terms of employment opportunities, even if they came back as college graduates. This prompts a massive millennial demographic loss as the young have continually seen urban locales such as Spokane as far more promising in terms of achieving any sort of economic stability for their lives.
Now what does this have to do with the average restaurant or bar in Chewelah or any other Stevens town? Essentially while fretting over the damage done to the books from wave after wave of new government regulation including the new minimum wage increase, these same local businesses must prepare themselves for the current tsunami coming down on them in terms of this population loss. Whether people like it or not, each obituary signals not only the loss of a neighbor and a friend, but also a customer a local business can ill afford to lose. Each person who needs to move into a nursing home or retires in warmer climates leads to a lost customer as Stevens County simply does not have the accommodations for these retirees. Every new retiree that does stay leads to a loss of how much income they had previously spent due to living on a smaller budget with the pay-cuts taken with the receipt of a pension. And every graduated youth that leaves for college or the city leads to one less potential and lifelong customer.
It is hard to look at one’s neighbors and friends as numbers and dollars, but it is one of the inevitable effects of running a business. Without a population of consumers, the local economy of Stevens County will crumble unless it finds a way to attract investors and entrepreneurs to create worthwhile jobs to not only retain the youth here, but also to invite new-comers to make their homes in this region. While small progress has been made—I was thrilled to hear the potential of the Addy plant reopening—this mentality of “50 jobs here and a hundred jobs there” will not fill in the loss of thousands of consumers and workers.