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Latest income numbers show Lawrence still in Kansas' bottom tier

Douglas County residents, it is time to compare ourselves with our neighbors again. And then mutter under our breath. Yes, new federal numbers are out measuring our incomes, and Douglas County again is stuck on the basement level.

Out of Kansas’ 105 counties, 30 have per capita personal income numbers of less than $40,000. Douglas County is still one of them, according to the new 2016 statistics released today.

But don’t get too despondent. For one, per capita personal income numbers aren’t a perfect measure of success, especially in a college community. The old theory goes that per capita numbers in college communities look worse than they really are because a lot of students in the community don’t have much in the way of income. Many are beer rich but cash poor. True enough, but that argument can become a crutch. It also is true that one of the best ways to raise incomes is to attract high-tech jobs that require highly educated people. What county in Kansas is smarter (or more modest) than Douglas County? That’s what I thought. Yet our incomes are still in the lower tier.

However, probably a better reason to take heart is that we are moving in the right direction. In fact, we are oh-so-close to breaking into the $40,000 club. Here’s Douglas County’s 2016 stats: Per capita personal income of $39,440 compared with the Kansas average of $47,228. That doesn't look so good, but our incomes grew by 1.6 percent in 2016, which is far better than the 0.5 percent growth rate of the state as a whole. In 2015, Douglas County incomes grew by 4.9 percent, also well above the statewide average. Over the last two years, we’ve even outpaced Johnson County’s income growth rate. (Don’t buy that new SUV quite yet. Johnson County’s per capita incomes are still more than $25,000 higher than ours.)

How do we stack up with some of our other neighbors? Here’s a look at per capital personal income numbers, which, by the way, basically measure all the income that individuals — not businesses — receive. That’s everything from paychecks to Social Security checks. But don’t confuse these numbers as an “average salary” for county residents. It is not. These numbers are for every man, woman and child in the county. But the numbers do give an idea of relative wealth of individuals in a county.

— Douglas: $39,440, up 1.6 percent

— Franklin: $38,371, up 1.3 percent

— Jefferson: $41,432, up 3.1 percent

— Johnson: $66,063, up 1.5 percent

— Leavenworth: $40,194, up 1.2 percent

— Osage: $39,372, up 2.8 percent

— Riley: $39,592, up 2.3 percent

— Shawnee: $44,504, up 3 percent

— Wyandotte: $30,508, down 15.8 percent

No, I don’t know what has happened to Wyandotte County, but the numbers are stark. Its per capita income in 2014 was more than $42,000, and it has plummeted in the last two years.

Less stark but still concerning are numbers in Sedgwick County, home to Wichita. Per capita incomes are still strong at $49,213. But while other counties were growing the past two years, Sedgwick County declined both years, down 1.7 percent. Next to Johnson County, Sedgwick County is the most important engine in the Kansas economy, so those numbers don’t bode well.

Other numbers in the report are troubling for Kansas. As has been the case for a long time, the counties with the highest income levels aren’t really what you would think of as economic powerhouses. Instead, they are very sparsely populated counties that rely primarily on agriculture. People move out of the county, but the ag land remains, meaning the ag income gets distributed among the smaller number of locals. The result is higher per capita income, but it isn’t a recipe for a healthy economy.

Lane County is a good example. It has the highest per capita income in the state at $76,238. If you aren’t sure where Lane County is, you’re not alone. Dighton is its county seat. It also is the county’s lone city. There are about 1,600 people in the county, and the population dropped by 18 percent during the last decade. A lot of “high ranking” counties in the state have similar stories.

That’s why it probably is wiser to compare Lawrence with some other similar communities. Here’s a look at how Douglas County’s per capita personal income numbers compare with the metro areas of some other college communities in the region:

— Boulder (University of Colorado): $63,707, up 1.6 percent

— Austin (University of Texas): $51,566, up 0.9 percent

— Iowa City (University of Iowa): $47,574, up 1.1 percent

— Fort Collins (Colorado State): $47,117, up 2.2 percent

— Lincoln (University of Nebraska): $45,511, up 1.5 percent

— Columbia (University of Missouri): $43,292, up 1.5 percent

— Manhattan: (KSU): $41,852, up 2.2 percent

— Lawrence (KU): $39,440, up 1.6 percent

— Morgantown (University of West Virginia): $39,024, down 0.8 percent

— Lubbock (Texas Tech): $38,568, up 0.6 percent

— Ames (Iowa State): $38,469, up 0.4 percent

— Waco, Texas (Baylor University): $37,755, up 2 percent

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