Census survey paints grim picture of Clark County's recovery

It shows income and homeownership fell locally between 2008 and 2012

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian special projects reporter

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Income and homeownership fell in Clark County between 2008 and 2012, according to estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau today.

The bureau's American Community Survey paints a grim picture of Clark County's recovery from the Great Recession.

"We took a nasty hit," said Scott Bailey, regional labor economist for the state Employment Security Department.

These economic trends played out among the clothing racks at Spanky's, a store in east Vancouver where people buy and sell used clothing.

"We've seen more new consignors since the downturn," said Rachel Phillips, Spanky's owner. "We hear, 'I've never done this before, but I need the money to buy clothes for my family.' Some people are using the money just to get by."

The median household income in Clark County fell 11.5 percent from $62,956 in 2008 to $55,719 in 2012. Statewide, it fell 6.5 percent from $61,604 in 2008 to $57,573 in 2012.

"It doesn't feel like a recovery for a lot of folks," said Eric LaBrant of Vancouver.

He was laid off from his collections job at Wells Fargo in 2011. After a year relying on unemployment benefits, the single dad landed a contract job that lasted for nine months. Then he was out of a job again.

"You could send out 100 résumés and not hear anything back," LaBrant said.

So he decided to start his own consulting business. Although he sees growth potential, for now, he's making less than he did before.

"I still get job postings for collections. The starting wage seems to have dropped," he said. "If someone has been laid off making $15 an hour, and they've been out of work for a while and are offered a job at $13 an hour, they're going to go for it. It beats the alternative of not being employed."

The housing crash took a heavy toll on Clark County, as well. Homeownership in Clark County dropped from a high of 71.6 percent in 2007, the year house prices hit their peak, to 64.1 percent in 2012.

Many Clark County residents struggled to make ends meet over the past five years.

Housing costs stressed renters' budgets. About 55 percent of renters spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing in 2012, up from 44 percent in 2008.

Among homeowners with mortgages, that figure dropped from 41 percent in 2008 to 35 percent in 2012.

That's not necessarily good news, Bailey said. Some homeowners may have refinanced for a lower payment, but many lost their homes to foreclosure, he said.

More Clark County residents relied on food stamps — 18.2 percent in 2012, up from 8.6 percent in 2008.

"The economy is impacting families who have never before had to ask for help," said Elizabeth Cerveny, executive director of North County Food Bank in Battle Ground. "With the economy being in such a downturn for so long, many families lost their homes and moved in with parents and grandparents. We see 16 to 18 people living in one household and needing help."

With Congress contemplating cuts to the food stamp program, Cerveny anticipates continued demand at the food bank.

Bailey said Clark County's economy may be improving, given an uptick in employment. But in watching her customers at Spanky's, Phillips sees more economic uncertainty.

"You can tell that the area is still recovering," she said. "I've seen people be more cautious. They go into the dressing room with a dozen items and they come out with one or two. They need some new clothes but they can't afford to buy everything they take in. They have to make some decisions."

Erin Middlewood: 360-735-4516; http://www.twitter.com/emiddlewood; erin.middlewood@columbian.com