Business leaders, government officials and the general public understand the importance of economic and educational opportunity, and government entities are constantly comparing themselves to others in order to see how they rate. One of the nation’s more comprehensive analyses has some telling numbers for Washington state and the Yakima Valley, statistics that add more information as to where we are and how far we need to go.
The numbers come from Opportunity Nation, an alliance of 350 business and nonprofit organizations, and the Social Science Research Council’s Measure of America. Starting in 2011, Opportunity Nation has put together indexes on 16 measures of social, educational and economic well-being for the nation and the states; further, the numbers can be broken down by county. So they reveal not only how states are doing compared with each other, but also how the counties rate within the state and around the country.
The verdict from the 2016 statistics: Washington state is doing fair to middling, Yakima County less so. Actually, far less so.
In 2016, Washington ranked 24th among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., up from 25th in 2011. Its “Opportunity Score” was 55.46, an increase from the 52.34 of 2011 and slightly higher than the nation’s average of 54.0.
On economic measures, the state did well on median household income and the poverty rate, less so on the unemployment rate. Educationally, it lagged in preschool enrollment and on-time graduation but did relatively well on post-secondary degrees. In the area of community health and civic life, the state did better on metrics such as violent crime, youth who are neither in school nor working, but it was slightly below the average of medical doctors per 100,000 population. All that added up to the state’s mixed picture.
The picture is much clearer in Yakima County, and it shows we have much work to do. The 2016 overall opportunity score was 38.7, essentially unchanged from 2011, and tied with timber-dependent Mason County for the lowest in the state. Yakima County’s unemployment rate, median household income and poverty rate scored poorly compared to national averages; preschool enrollment and post-secondary degree attainment fell far below state and national averages. The percentage of medical doctors remains far below state and national averages.
There were some relative bright spots. On-time high school graduation — an area that has received attention in recent years in this state — increased dramatically, though county and state numbers still fall below the national average. And despite widespread perceptions, violent crime in Yakima County is slightly below that of the nation.
That Yakima County lags behind the state in these areas is no surprise, but the wide gap shows how much work we have to do. Yakima County isn’t alone; a look at other agriculture-based counties in the West reflects their economic challenges, which also are evident in rural counties nationwide, especially in the South and Midwest. Nonetheless, the statistics reflect that local officials can’t let up in areas such as economic development, educational outcomes and quality of life. It remains incumbent on us to figure out what is working and what isn’t.
• To look at the numbers and compare Yakima County with the state and nation, go to http://opportunityindex.org
* Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Frank Purdy.