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So, you think you know Portland? Think again

Survey of 50 largest cities shows we're older, better paid.

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Portland is attracting more young adults, but few families with children, than its peers. Portland's median age - and family incomes- are higher than most other large U.S. cities, partly because of the lower number of children in the city.Portland is a young city, right? And it’s filled with people making subpar pay.

Well, it turns out those and other bits of conventional wisdom are overstated, if not flat-out wrong.

Portland’s population is actually older than Phoenix, and the typical family here earns more than their New York City counterparts.

Portland city economist Josh Harwood compiled the latest U.S. Census data for the nation’s 50-largest cities, to help city commissioners and other policymakers understand the changing fabric of Portland and its challenges for the future.

The results may surprise people.

Portland, it turns out, has the sixth-oldest population of all the 50 cities, measured by median age. Not surprisingly, Miami has the oldest populace, followed by San Francisco, Louisville, Cleveland, Seattle, and then us.

Portland’s median age was 36 based on the census’s American Community Surveys for 2008 to 2012, meaning half of us are older and half are younger. That’s four to five years older than several of the peer cities we often get compared to, such as Minneapolis, Austin and Salt Lake City. And it's four years older than Phoenix, a retirement mecca.

Another surprise: Our median family income is the eighth-highest among the top 50 cities. Seattle has the highest median income in the nation now, followed by San Jose and San Francisco — three of the nation's tech hotbeds.

At eighth-highest, Portland’s median family income is slightly more than Austin, Minneapolis, Boston and Denver, and well above New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas, among others.

On a per-person basis, Portland has the 13th-highest income among the top 50 cities.

As they say, there are lies, there are damn lies and there are statistics.

Many factors can skew city-to-city comparisons, and lots of factors are in play here.

Demographers and economists say the biggest explanation for why Portlanders shows up so old and relatively well-paid is that we have fewer children living in the city these days. That skews our median age and makes our incomes look higher. Children don’t earn much money; nor do stay-at-home parents.

Portland ranked fourth-lowest among the 50 cities for the share of our population under the age of 25, and for our average family size, Harwood found. In contrast, we ranked third-highest for those age 25 to 64.

Portland also ranks near the top among big cities for the share of its population that’s white and non-Latino. That’s a segment with relatively low and declining birth rates, says Charles Rynerson, a demographer at the Population Research Center at Portland State University.

As baby boomers age and life expectancies extend, many cities are getting older. Portland’s median age jumped from 31.4 in 1980 to 35.8 in 2010, says Uma Krishnan, a demographer for the Portland Planning and Sustainability Bureau. During the 1970s, many families with children moved out of Portland to the suburbs, as evidenced by a significant drop in the number of preschoolers and students, Krishnan says. However, there’s been an uptick in school-age youth in the city since 2006, she says.

Portland has attracted a lot of people in their 20s and early-30s in recent years, but many of them haven’t started families.

“Portland was a popular place to come in the '70s also,” Rynerson says, and many of those people are still here now and in their 50s and 60s.

Rynerson says Portland would look a lot more like San Francisco if not for the city’s neighborhoods east of 82nd Avenue, where some 40 percent of Portland’s children now live.

Portland doesn’t have the same concentrated inner-city poverty, and never has, when compared to a good number of other large U.S. cities, says economist Joe Cortright, who operates Impresa Inc. and the City Observatory website and think tank. One measure of that: Portland has the fourth-lowest share of families led by single parents among the 50 largest cities. Those families tend to have lower incomes.

In recent years, Portland neighborhoods have attracted a higher share of well-educated and well-paid residents than many of its surrounding suburbs, Cortright notes. That isn't the case in most other large cities, where such people are more likely to choose suburban locales.

The fast-rising rents and home prices of Portland also tend to push lower-income people out to East Portland and the suburbs. Portland's median home price ranks ninth-highest among the 50 cities.

But as the gap between rich and poor widens in the United States, it’s noticeable here as well. Fully 44 percent of Portland families have incomes of 80 percent of the median or less, Krishnan says.

Harwood relied on American Community Survey data from 2008 to 2012 for his analysis, and only used data for the city of Portland because that’s the area served by his employer. But he recognizes that city comparisons can be arbitrary and skewed. For instance, the median age of the Portland metropolitan area ranks 22nd-highest among the top 50 metro areas, in the middle of the pack.

In coming months, Harwood hopes to do more complete comparisons among the largest 50 metro areas around the country.

But the data does suggest Portland might want to rethink the cities it compares itself to, he says, such as Seattle, because it’s much larger and more international in its orientation.

“I’ve always sort of bristled at that,” says Harwood, who argues it's almost like comparing Minneapolis to Chicago or Raleigh to Atlanta.

The new data showing Seattle tops in median family income confirms it’s enjoying an extraordinary economic boom right now that would be hard for cities anywhere to equal.

But others say it’s good for Portland to set aspirational goals by comparing itself to more prosperous cities like Seattle, Denver and Minneapolis.

“If you’re the Oregon Ducks, you want to compare yourself to Ohio State, not Oregon State,” Cortright says. “You want to be No. 1.”

Steve Law can be reached at: 503-546-5139 or stevelaw@portlandtribune.com

Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/SteveLawTrib