There are any number of reasons people choose to live in Western North Carolina. For some folks, it's always been home and always will be, regardless of how freaky it may get. Outsiders often move here for the natural beauty, for the diversity of lifestyles or for Asheville's remarkable cultural offerings.
But it seems safe to say that not too many people come here for the abundant job opportunities -- or for the wages their skills can command.
"You've got to think it has to do with quality of life," says Tom Tveidt, director of research at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. "People are willing to come here and work for less" -- even those, he notes, with high levels of education and training.
"I get calls all the time from people that want to move here. But finding a job -- or what their [current] job is -- is almost a secondary issue," Tveidt observes. "They're just trying to figure out how they can end up in Asheville."
And though Tveidt says he doesn't have the stats to back it up, he believes a hefty percentage of the recent arrivals here are bringing their jobs with them, whether they're telecommuters, consultants or contractors with an established client base elsewhere. Thanks to technology (and particularly broadband access), geography no longer poses such an unyielding obstacle to many professions, and more people can choose to move here simply for the lifestyle -- as Tveidt himself did in 1996, working as a consultant before being hired by the Chamber.
"I've met many folks that have built a client base somewhere else, like Atlanta or Charlotte, and said, 'Heck, I don't actually have to be there. I can be sitting at my home in Asheville and do the same thing,'" he notes.
Nice work if you can get it
Still, the general lack of well-paying jobs remains a very real issue for many -- despite the fact that, by many measures, the area's economy is strong.
Indeed, if the unemployment stats are to be believed, there is no dearth of work here. The unemployment rate for the Asheville Metropolitan Statistical Area (which includes Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson and Madison counties) is 3.8 percent -- tied with the Raleigh metro area for the lowest in the state.
In a sense, however, local workers are getting the worst of both worlds. When an area approaches "full employment" (meaning that everyone who wants work and is willing to work at the market wage has a job), wages typically rise, because at that point, workers available for hire become a scarce -- and therefore more valuable -- commodity. (While economists don't agree on what particular rate marks full employment, Tveidt says the Asheville area's 3.8 percent unemployment rate is "darn close.") But for a variety of reasons, that hasn't happened here.
"Wages have historically been low in this part of the state. That's nothing new," he notes. Health care (26,000 workers), tourism (21,700) and manufacturing (21,500) are the three main employment sectors for the area's 166,180-person work force, with "pockets of relatively high wages" in all three sectors, he says.
Making the rent
Still, only about 40 percent of the work force is employed in those areas. And meanwhile, there are other challenges. Exacerbating the problem of low wages is the area's cost of living -- the highest in the state, according to the Chamber, and higher than most other metro areas in the Southeast, including Greenville/Spartanburg, Charleston and Knoxville.
The key driver here is housing costs. In a booming real estate market, the average single-family home in the Asheville metro area now costs more than $277,000 -- beyond the reach of many local families. Meanwhile, the recent property revaluation boosted the assessed value of homes in Buncombe County by an average of 45 percent. And since properties often command even higher prices in the open market, the spiral seems likely to continue.
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, more people here live below the poverty line, compared with the state and the nation as a whole. The figure for the Asheville metro area is 13.6 percent, compared with 12.1 percent for the United States and 12.9 percent for North Carolina.
The median household income shows a similar gap: $39,807 here, versus $43,266 (North Carolina) and $46,338 (United States).