US Census: Vt. leads in income growth

Associated Press

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Vermont is seeing a mix of economic news: Its unemployment rate jumped in August by three-tenths of a percentage point for the second month in a row, the state Department of Labor said Friday.

But at 5.3 percent, it remained the fifth lowest in the country and well below the national rate of 8.1 percent.

Meanwhile the U.S. Census reported that by one measure, Vermont was the lone bright spot on the national economic scene last year. The Census Bureau's American Community Survey said Vermont was the only state to see a rise in its median household income, which went from $50,707 in 2010 to $52,776 in 2011.

Art Woolf, an associate professor of economics at the University of Vermont and editor of the Vermont Economy Newsletter, said the Census data paint a truer picture of Vermont's economy than month-to-month unemployment figures.

In part, that's because what the Census based on survey estimates has been backed up by hard data on collections by the state Tax Department, Woolf said.

"If you look at income tax numbers, they show very healthy growth in personal income taxes for the state," Woolf said. "It tells us people are earning more income."

The Census Bureau also reported that poverty is declining in Vermont. The percentage of residents in the state living in poverty declined from 12.7 in 2010 to 11.5 in 2011, the census said. Vermont tied with Virginia with the seventh-lowest poverty rate in the country in 2011. Virginia and all the states with lower rates than Vermont's saw theirs climb from 2010 to 2011.

For Vermont, "You have to see it as good news," Woolf said. "Having lower poverty and higher incomes is kind of the idea of what you want the economy to do."

Vermont also ranked low among the states for income inequality. The Census Bureau uses a "Gini index," a complex formula that allows it to compare incomes distributed across a population, to estimate income inequality. Vermont's was fifth lowest in the country.

Not everyone painted Vermont's economy in a completely positive light.

Jack Hoffman, senior policy analyst with the Montpelier-based Public Assets Institute, said in a blog post that the new Census data "bring to mind a book title from the 1960s: 'Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me.'"

While Vermont's poverty rate dropped in 2011, "it had risen in 2008, 2009, and 2010 as the Great Recession took its toll," Hoffman wrote. "Despite the drop last year, Vermont's poverty rate in 2011 was still higher than the 10.1 percent rate we had in 2007."