County’s surge in children bucks local, national trends

Lower cost of living, schools luring some families from Oregon

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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When economic conditions drove Jennifer and Erick Wegerer to move from Beaverton to Vancouver in 2004, they intended to return to Oregon once they had children who reached school age.

That year, the Wegerers were laid off simultaneously from Sage Software, then Timberline Software, in Beaverton. Six weeks later, Erick found employment at Columbia Ultimate in Vancouver, and the couple moved close to his new job to save money on fuel and housing expenses and to start a family.

By the time Erick took a job at Greenbrier Companies Inc. in Portland the following year, the couple had 3-month-old twins.

“We wanted to move back to Portland when the twins started kindergarten,” Jennifer Wegerer said. “The school cuts on that side were so extreme that we decided to stay here. A lot of the schools over there were doing well ratings-wise but were cutting days that they weren’t cutting over here.”

Lower cost of living and a variety of parks and recreation opportunities for children also factored into their decision to stay, she said.

The Wegerer family is just one example of a 13.7 percent upsurge in the number of children in Clark County in the past 10 years, the largest growth in the Portland metro area and a trend that goes against the national tide of stagnation, according to the most recent data released from the 2010 U.S. Census.

Nationwide, the younger-than-18 population grew by 2.6 percent since 2000, the reverberation of women postponing motherhood to pursue higher education and careers, said Charles Rynerson, a demographer at Portland State Population Research Center. The state average was 4.5 percent; Oregon’s average was 2.4 percent.

The growth in the number of children was even slower in Clackamas and Multnomah counties in Oregon. Despite overall population growth of 11 percent in the Portland-area counties, the younger-than-18 populations increased by a sluggish 1 percent in Clackamas and 2.3 percent in Multnomah. Like Clark County, Oregon’s Washington County was an exception to the one-digit percent growth, with a 13.6 percent increase in people younger than 18 and 18.9 percent growth in overall population.

“Washington and Clark both grew at a much faster rate over the decade,” said Scott Bailey, a regional economist for the state’s Employment Security Department. “The difference in growth rates is primarily from more people moving into an area, and most people who move are young adults and young families. So, greater in-migration leads to more kids.”

In 2010 alone, some 19,529 people moved into Clark County, while 16,748 moved out, leaving a gain of 2,781 residents, according to IRS migration figures. More than half of that net gain came from Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties, according to the IRS numbers.

Lower housing costs

So, what prompts people to choose Clark County over the Oregon side of the Columbia River?

“My bet is it’s lower-cost housing than what you find in the center of Multnomah County where the population density is,” said John Mitchell, principal of M&H Economic Consultants in Portland.

The median sale price for a house in Clark County was $189,900 last month, according to RMLS, the Portland-based multiple listing service.

In Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties, the median was between a low of $171,000 in Gresham/Troutdale in Multnomah County and a high of $355,000 in Lake Oswego/West Linn in Clackamas County.

Lower cost of living is another draw to the Washington side of the river.

Danny and Katrina Mascher said they left Oregon City in Clackamas County in 2006, after their daughter, Madison, was born, for the lower housing prices in Clark County. They bought a house in Cascade Park and haven’t regretted it.

“The housing prices are cheaper, and we heard there were good schools and lots of parks,” Danny Mascher said. “It was pretty much a no-brainer as new parents.”

More students

Schools also could be a magnet, but that doesn’t explain almost identical growth in children in Washington County, Mitchell said.

“Anecdotally, I get quite a few calls from families from areas farther away than the metro area shopping for schools,” said Doreen McKercher, public information officers for the Camas School District. “Often, they’re trying to decide between schools in Oregon, Lake Oswego and other affluent areas, and Washington.”

Clark County school districts have swelled with additional students during the past 10 years but the trend is beginning to level out. The Camas School District grew from about 3,900 students in 2000 to nearly 6,000 in 2010. The biggest boom was in 2003-04, when the district had 10 percent growth in one year, McKercher said.

McKercher said parents are often won over to Washington when they learn that the state mandates schools to provide at least 180 days of instruction.

“In Oregon, that’s not the case,” she said.

“Clark County’s population growth rate overall was a bit faster than Washington County, but the under-18 growth rate was virtually the same for each county,” said Bailey of the state Employment Security Department. “This would seem to work against the ‘better schools’ theory. If Clark had faster growth overall, it should have had faster growth and then some in the under-18 crowd if parents were migrating based on perceived school quality.”

Growth in jobs, especially in information technology, in Washington County was probably fuel for that county’s growth in children, Mitchell said. Companies, including Intel Corp., tend to draw young professionals who have or are about to have families, he said.

Latinos also played a role Clark County’s growth in children.

The county’s Latino community doubled in number since 2000, and Latinos younger than 18 accounted for about 10 percent of the net gain of 66,535 children in Clark County since 2000.

Rynerson of Portland State said Latinos tend to have higher fertility than non-Latinos.

In many parts of the nation, the population of children increased only due to Latinos, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551, paris.achen@columbian.com, Twitter@Col_Trends