Alan Berube at the Brookings Institution explains that most of the low-wage jobs in King County aren't in Seattle, but out in the burbs:
While low-wage jobs are prevalent in Seattle, they’re even more prevalent in its nearby suburbs. Using data from the American Community Survey, my colleague Sid Kulkarni and I calculated that between 2009 and 2011, there were on average 149,000 jobs (full-time and part-time) in the city of Seattle that paid less than $15/hour. Over the same period, the remainder of King County had an average of 216,000 jobs that paid hourly wages below that threshold. These low-wage jobs represented 30 percent of all jobs in Seattle, and 34 percent of all jobs in the rest of King County. ...
To be sure, many people who live in the King County suburbs of Seattle will benefit from a $15/hour Seattle minimum wage, because they work in the city. According to a University of Washington study conducted for Mayor Murray’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee, fully four in 10 people who earn less than $15/hour working in Seattle jobs—and who would thus presumably benefit from the minimum wage increase—live outside of the city. That’s particularly important in a region like Greater Seattle, where suburbs are home to most of the poor. At the same time, the UW study finds that nearly as many Seattle residents in sub-$15/hour jobs work outside the city limits.
Berube concludes that more big cities should consider coordinating wage hikes with the suburbs, because economies don't stop at a city's borders. Taking that point to its next logical level, he proposes we apply that same regional thinking to funding universal preschool and shoring up transit service. It's a familiar argument and it sounds neighborly. Even so, Berube acknowledges that "maybe" Seattle, with its souped up economic engine, should pioneer higher wages because it can demonstrate the changes won't cause severe economic disruption. I don't disagree with him.
But in reality, rational regional arguments don't really apply here. The problem is more political.
That is, it's not about Seattle proving that raising the wage makes sense to wary-but-eager suburban neighbors. I think many of our suburban neighbors have an unshakable, knee-jerk, ideologically opposition to this sort of thing. They don't want to pioneer universal preschool or augment bus funding because they're taxed enough already, goshdarnit! They don't want to pass paid sick-leave or raise the wage because that may hurt the holy job creators. It's like a microcosm of two-dimensional, red-and-blue Beltway politics.
Trying to persuade our neighbors to take the initial leap with us on $15 is a fool's errand. We can talk about regionalism with raising the minimum wage, adding Metro bus service, speeding up light-rail construction, paying for sick leave, etc. till we're blue in the face. They're just not gonna blaze that trail with liberal Seattle. (In the instance of Metro, this map shows the rest of the county won't pay up.)
The best thing Seattle can do is make the suburbs jealous. The suburbs aren't moved by evidence, they're moved by envy. If we want to see these same policy-backed investments in the suburbs, we have to approve them first in the city. They won't do it because it makes sense, because it's fair, because investing now to get returns in the future is a tried-and-true way to run a society. They'll do it because we have what they want: more money, better transportation, better preschool. So we have to take the leap, and if they never join the city, their loss. But the last thing we should do is dilly-dally while entertaining ourselves with a fantasy of regional cooperation that we're never gonna get.