The State of Working Washington

Washington’s unemployment rate has declined steadily since 2016, and now matches the pre-Great Recession low of 4.7%. It’s been a long road to recovery — and official unemployment numbers do not include the many discouraged people who are no longer actively looking for employment, and others who are working part time or in “make-do” jobs because of the scarcity of desirable jobs.

By the end of the Great Recession, Washington’s average rate of unemployment was above 10%. It took nearly 18 months beyond the official end of the recession for the rate to begin dropping steadily. After stagnating through the middle months of 2013, the rate fell under 7% by July 2013, and to 6% by July 2014.

In late summer of 2014 the labor force began growing faster than job growth could accommodate, and unemployment leveled off, hovering between 5.6% and 5.8% throughout 2015. Unemployment began declining again in 2016, matching the pre-Great Recession low of 4.7%.

While Washington’s official unemployment rate is 4.8% as of April 2018, it’s not necessarily reflective of a strong performance in labor markets. A broader measure of labor underutilization (officially called the “U-6”, but often referred to in the press as the “underemployment rate”) includes: the officially unemployed; the “marginally attached” (those neither working nor looking for work, but who want and are available to work, and have looked for work in the past year); and people working part-time who want a full-time job. The national U-6 is 8.6% as of April 2018.

Washington’s average employment numbers have rebounded since the Great Recession. During the previous recession (in the early 2000’s), the state lost 52,000 jobs before employment began improve. During the Great Recession, Washington’s industries shed three times that – over 157,000 jobs – before jobs began to grow again in 2011. More than 78,000 jobs were added in 2017. (Note: 2018 average below based on partial year.)

Did you know that 417,000 people in Washington work at or near Washington’s minimum wage (earning less than $12/hour), or that more of Washington’s lowest-wage workers are over age 55 than under age 20?

Initiative 1433, passed by Washington voters in 2016, increased Washington’s minimum wage to $11.50 per hour on January 1st, 2018. While that helps some paychecks keep up with the cost of living — particularly for people without younger children, and those living in less urban areas — it’s still far short of what many need to make ends meet.

The map below illustrates how a full-time minimum wage paycheck stacks up versus a basic self-sufficiency budget for various family sizes. Select a family size via the drop-down menu, then click on a county to get detailed results.

Washington’s overall poverty rate increased in the wake of the Great Recession and remained persistently high through 2013. While the poverty rate has declined somewhat since, in 2016 more than one in ten Washingtonians (nearly 806,000 people) lived below the federal poverty threshold (for example: with an income under $24,339 for a family of two adults and two children under age 18). Many more Washingtonians are living near poverty: more than one in five (22.0%) have incomes below 150% of the poverty level, and nearly one in three (31.1%) have incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level.

State budget cuts have driven up the price of college — even as total costs have declined.

During the 1989-90 academic year, yearly full-time tuition and fees totaled $3,621 at University of Washington (UW) or Washington State University (WSU). That covered about 16% of the $22,100 total yearly cost per student, with state funds making up the difference. At Western, Central and Eastern Washington University (the state’s comprehensive universities), tuition and fees averaged $3,009 — about 21% of the $14,500 total. Tuition and fees at community and technical colleges (CTCs) were just $1,629, or about 22% of the $7,350 total.

At four-year institutions, the total yearly cost per student has actually declined since then (by $3,000 at UW, $2,500 at WSU, and $700 at WWU/CWU/EWU) — but state legislators have steadily (and sometimes dramatically) cut funding for higher education over the years. As the state’s share of costs has declined, the student’s share (paid in tuition and fees) has risen, driving up the price of a college education for students and their families.

In 2017-18, tuition and fees are $11,000/year at UW or WSU, covering 61% and 57% of the total yearly cost per student, respectively. At the comprehensives, tuition and fees average $7,641, which represents 55% of the $13,800 total. And at CTCs (where the total yearly cost per student has increased by $2,150 since 1989-90) tuition has risen by $2,307 to $3,936, budget cuts have reduced the state’s share from 78% to 59% of the total.

(Notes: All amounts shown in 2017 dollars. Student vs. state share of costs for 2017-18 is based on average FTE student enrollment increases for previous 3 years. Additional fees, like technology or lab fees, vary by campus and are not shown.)

Explore the State of Washington’s budget and learn how public resources are being spent. Budget data is updated when new budgets are passed/enacted by the state legislature.