Editorial: What it means to live in the richest state

Thursday, September 14, 2017

On Wednesday, after analyzing the median household income figures released by the Census Bureau, the Washington Post proclaimed New Hampshire the nation’s richest state.

There, feel richer now? Maybe like buying a Porsche or at least going out for a fancy dinner? Of course not. That’s because the feel-good number, the Granite State’s $76,260 median family income, tells only part of the story.

New Hampshire’s median income – half of all households below that figure, half above it – is high in part because the state’s residents are, on average, among the most highly educated in the nation.

The figure is also high because the state has a smaller percentage of poor people, 6.9 percent, than any other.

The poverty rate would be much higher were it not for social welfare programs such as food stamps, federal housing subsidies and earned income tax payments to low-wage workers. It would be higher still if the outdated definition of poverty more accurately reflected the harsh reality of a family of three trying to live on $20,420 per year, below which lies official poverty.

For the past two years wages have been rising pretty much across the board, according to the Census. That’s a good thing, and it reflects the efforts of the Obama administration and the Federal Reserve to kick the economy up and out of recession. The median household income, however, is not, in real terms, back to what it was in 2007 before the economic downturn.

In fact, according to the Economic Policy Institute, it’s 2.4 percent below its 1999 level.

New Hampshire’s enviable median household income figure also fails to factor in the state’s high cost of living. The state is not at the top along with Hawaii, California and New York but usually about tenth. Food, housing, utility costs, transportation and health care are higher throughout New England.

The $76,260 number also refers to the state as a whole. It doesn’t reflect the vast differences within the state itself.

The median household income in Coos County is roughly half what it is in Rockingham, for example. The gap can be yawning even within the same county.

In 2015 the Census reported the median household income in Bow to be $102,847, in Concord, $56,093, and Franklin, $43,237. Statewide, it ranged from $122,692 in New Castle to $34,375 in Errol.

The Census figures suggest that the nation has made little progress when it comes to closing the gaps between haves and have-littles.

Average household income for the bottom 20 percent of households, adjusted for inflation, fell by more than $500 over the past decade. Despite modest wage growth, a disproportionate share continues to accrue to those at the very top.

According to the relief organization Oxfam, the wealth of just eight men, among them Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, equals the wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population, or 3.6 billion people.

On the plus side, thanks to expanded Medicaid eligibility in a majority of states and the Affordable Care Act, more people have health insurance. Unemployment rates are low, and incomes are rising.

The question now is will the Republicans who control Congress and the White House make matters better or worse.