If you feel poorer than a decade ago, you're not lonely in the Tampa Bay area, fresh data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows. Three of five local counties saw drops in household income, with Pinellas leading the way. Pasco, on the other hand, claims bragging rights statewide. Its household income growth topped all Florida counties. What's the deal?
What neighbors matter: "Consumers are 70 percent of the U.S. economy, and consumption spending is dependent on income, plain and simple," said University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith. Whether that income's headed up or down matters, said Stan Smith, a University of Florida economist. "If incomes are going up, people are more able to keep buying things — and keep the economy chugging along. If income goes down, they're less able to do so."
Who's on top: Well, not Floridians. While nationally, median household income was $51,425 in 2009, it was 8 percent less in Florida: $47,450. Given Florida's higher-than-average hit from the housing crash, that's not surprising. "What's the biggest thing that's happened in the economy over this decade?" UCF's Snaith said. "The thing that really marks it as far as major events in the economy, it's got to be the housing market. And throw in the financial crisis on top of that, and you've got something that can really move income." The highest household income growth since 2000 was in Arlington County, Va., which reached $93,806, a boost of $12,705. Meanwhile, Rockdale County, Ga., suffered the biggest drop, down $13,316 to $55,681.
Statistics: Some county differences may be explained by the realities of statistics, not reality itself. For example, UF's Smith pointed out, "regression toward the mean" tells us that counties that started out higher would tend to fall, while the others would rise. That may help explain changes in Pasco and Hernando, which started lower and rose, and in Hillsborough and Pinellas, which started higher but dropped. Meanwhile, samples in the Census Bureau's American Community Survey can be small, which increases the chance of measurement error. So in Hernando County, we can't say whether income has gone up or down since 2000 — with a margin of error of $1,009, the median income in 2009 may have been as low as $41,448 or as high as $43,466.
Commuters: This decade, new thoroughfares such as the Suncoast Parkway plus upscale developments north of Tampa lured high-wage earners into Pasco County, said Dave Hamilton, who looks at labor market information for the Pasco Hernando Workforce Board. Folks were drawn to bigger homes on larger lots for less than what they paid to live near their jobs in Hillsborough or Pinellas. David Denslow, a University of Florida economist, said the commuter effect might help explain income growth in both Pasco and Hernando.
Workforce: Low-wage agricultural employment in Pasco dropped, while the higher-paying medical field grew the whole decade, Hamilton said. "We have greatly increased medical capacity in both Pasco and Hernando counties," he said. More hospitals mean more higher-wage medical workers live nearby.
Property income: The 2000s were a better decade for households with income from property, such as real estate or stocks, than those with income from working or Social Security, Denslow says. Roughly speaking, that means that the counties with higher shares of property income did better — and those are the ones with more retirees. Hillsborough and Pinellas, which saw household income fall, have the smaller percentage shares of retirees. Citrus County's retirees, on the other hand, are lower-income retirees who have less property income. That tilts the scales, once again, toward Hernando and Pasco.
Becky Bowers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8859. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/bbowerstimes.