As N.H. economy booms, some are still feeling a bust

  • Courtesy—NH Fiscal Policy Institute

  • Courtesy—NH Fiscal Policy Institute

Monitor staff
Published: 2/15/2020 3:30:47 PM

The economic tide in New Hampshire has been rising for a couple of years, with record-low unemployment and wages increasing at all levels, but in a twist on the well-known economic saying, not all boats are being lifted.

“The economy is growing and fortunes are rising, but not for everyone equally,” said Phil Sletten, a policy analyst for the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute.

The nonprofit think tank’s annual conference in Concord on Friday will tackle this topic, looking at the issues behind the state’s moderate but growing economic inequality. It will include talks and panels about housing, education, health care and demographics. Don’t expect simple answers, however.

“Part of the reason it’s hard to have single solutions is because of the integration between these issues,” said Sletten. “Just because someone has a certain income level, especially if they’re above the poverty level but not that far above, they may still have a lot of difficulty finding housing they can afford, or finding health care when they need it.”

“Consider health care. … That is complicated in and of itself, never mind how it interconnects with housing, with education, with transportation,” said Sletten. “Understanding the connections between them … is important for figuring out how we can tackle these challenges, and understanding how they are best approached and most efficiently dealt with.”

The conference comes even as New Hampshire’s economy is doing well by many measures, with the number of employed state residents at record levels, regularly topping 750,000, and the jobless rate about as low as economists say it can get.

Pay is also going up. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says the average weekly wage in New Hampshire rose 4% between the second quarter of 2018 and the second quarter of 2019, continuing a trend that reaches back at least to 2017.

But the increase is not evenly spread, with the North Country and portions of southwest New Hampshire falling behind the “golden triangle” in Merrimack, Hillsborough and Rockingham counties – roughly, the area from Concord south to Nashua and east to the Seacoast. On average, for example, household income in Coos County was $45,700 in 2018, about half that of Rockingham County.

And in a story that is repeated throughout the country, gains are unevenly distributed even within geographic areas. For example, poverty rates for households headed by a single female stand at about 20%, as compared to about 5% for all families, according to NHFPI data.

And even when an area has relatively low poverty rates, population growth means there can be a lot of people in poverty.

“While Rockingham County has the lowest poverty rate in New Hampshire, this county is estimated to be home to the second-largest number of people in poverty, about 14,200, relative to other counties in the state. Hillsborough County was home to an estimated 32,600 people living at or below poverty-level incomes, the highest county-level estimate in the state,” said a report by Sletten titled “Resource Inequities by County and Population Group in 2014-2018.”

Finally, NHFPI data indicates that wage increases for some lower-paid jobs aren’t keeping pace with increases in the cost of living.

A 2019 report from the NHFPI put it this way: “Individuals in the state making the median wage or less actually have less purchasing power than … before the Great Recession. Individuals consistently making less than the median wage of $20.95 per hour in 2018 have experienced what feels like a pay cut compared to the past.”

One alarming statistic for the state involves what is known as the Gini coefficient, a well-regarded measure of income distribution that compares the amount of a region’s income going to various groups.

New Hampshire’s Gini coefficient is moderate compared to the country as a whole but has been rising for years and last year it rose more than almost any other state. In 2010, New Hampshire had the fourth-lowest Gini coefficient – where lower scores mean less inequality – whereas in 2018 we were only the 14th lowest.

“The light that we hope to shed” at the conference “is discussing the inter-relationship between people’s incomes, access to resources, what part of the state they might live in, what community they might live in – and what implications do those have for ways to help,” Sletten said.

For information about the NHFPI annual conference, check the website at nhfpi.org.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)



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