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Kansas City’s Fast-Growing Economy Promises New Working-Class Mobility

If consumers are feeling better, they're apt to spend more — which could mean better job growth down the road.
Jessica Rinaldi
Reuters /Landov
If consumers are feeling better, they may be more apt to spend — which could mean better job growth down the road.

Greater Kansas City is creating jobs and expanding sales faster than expected just a few months ago, according to a revised forecast from the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University. Jeremy Hill, the center’s director, says the numbers are so healthy they could cost him his reputation.

“I was named the Duke of Doom and Gloom. I have had a lot of negative news over the last 12, 13 years I've been doing this,” Hill says. “So this is good.”

Hill says the Kansas City economy was red hot going into the pandemic, and it took an especially hard hit, losing more than 100,000 jobs when lockdowns took hold. Unemployment shot past 13%. Now he says unemployment is just 4.2%, and jobs are coming back fast, thanks in large part to federal government intervention.

“The market is improving much faster than we've expected or other economists have expected because of policy and opening up the markets,” Hill says.

He says that back in January, economists didn’t think the vaccine rollout would go as well as it has. They also didn’t anticipate a stimulus package as massive as President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.

Some sectors are growing faster than others. Jobs in greater Kansas City’s hospitality industry should expand by more than 12% this year, for instance, but that segment saw a one third drop in jobs during the pandemic. Business services, on the other hand, are forecast to add 4.4% more jobs and end the year with more jobs than that segment offered at its pre-pandemic high.

Hill says the new mix of employment opportunities promises to provide something that previous recoveries did not — a chance for working-class Kansas Citians to get ahead.

“One of the things that we were really lacking over the last decade is upward mobility opportunity,” Hill says.

He says some of the new jobs this time require a bit more skill, which means workers will be developing those skills and getting a chance to demand higher pay.

And that’s already happening. Hill says the data show a rising number of workers voluntarily quitting low-wage jobs. Hill says that statistic indicates that low-wage workers are starting to feel like they have options and are looking for better positions.

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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