Median income plummets in the West




Growth in the gap between rich and poor was more pronounced in the West in 2011 than in the nation at large, as the region’s median income slumped by 4.1 percent, according to a Census Bureau report released Wednesday.

The West’s median household income shrank from $54,630 in 2010 to $52,376 in 2011. The slide exceeded the nation’s decline of 1.5 percent.

One reason for the disparity: The job market has taken longer to recover in the West than in the rest of the nation, said Jared Bernstein, senior fellow at The Center on Budget & Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C.

The Census Bureau defines the West as Washington, Oregon, California, Alaska, Idaho, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Washington, Oregon, California and Nevada have higher unemployment rates than the national average of 8.3 percent. Washington’s is 8.5 percent, followed by Oregon with 8.7 percent, 10.7 percent in California and 12 percent in Nevada.

Given that California is the world’s ninth-largest economy — according to an analysis by the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy earlier this week — that state’s unemployment rate could make a significant dent in the region’s median income.

Despite the dramatic dip in median income, the West still maintains a higher median income than the South, $46,899, and the Midwest, $48,722. The Northeast has a higher median at $53,864, according to the census report. All of the regions had a slight decline in median income, except the South, which stayed the same.

The poverty rate in the West increased by half of a percentage point from 15.3 percent to 15.8 percent in 2011, compared with a national average of 15 percent. The West nearly caught up with the South, which had the nation’s highest poverty rate of 16 percent.

The number of uninsured in the West grew slightly, from 12.8 million to 13.1 million, or 18 percent of the population, in 2011, but that may have “masked” an improvement in health insurance rates among people 19-25, who are typically the least likely to have health insurance, according to a blog Wednesday by Brett O’Hara, chief of health insurance statistics at the Census Bureau. That group benefited from health care reform that requires insurers to cover them under their parents’ policies. Nationwide, their uninsured rate declined by 2.2 percentage points. Nearly 1 million, or 14.5 percent of Washingtonians under 65, lack health insurance, according to the Washington State Office of the Insurance Commissioner.

The Census Bureau has not yet released 2011 health insurance rates, median income and poverty rates for counties.