Daily Camera reports misleading statistics on Boulder County incomes

Last week the Daily Camera reported that median Boulder County household incomes had dropped “nearly 12 percent” since 1999.  But the Camera did not mention the less alarming news — that per capita incomes have increased over the same time period by 1.5 percent, adjusting for inflation.  This is according to two reports by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis: “Personal Income for Metropolitan Areas for 2009” and “Local Area Personal Income , 1998-2000.

This sounds strange, but household income figures can mislead. Higher per capita income can decrease household income.  As economist Thomas Sowell notes, “Increased real income per person enables more people to live in their own separate dwelling units, instead of with parents, roommates, or strangers in a rooming house.”

Per capita income statistics aren’t perfect, either. The city or county could pass more zoning laws that inflate housing prices. These exclude poor people, and hence per capita income increases.

If you want to more accurately compare 1999 with 2009 incomes, look at income mobility, which compares the same flesh-and-blood people each time. For example, the Tax Foundation reports that “nearly 60 percent of households in the bottom income quintile in 1999 were in a higher quintile in 2007.”

But income mobility doesn’t tell the whole story either, as it neglects the value of employee benefits. “Health insurance costs relative to payroll increased 34 percent between 1996 and 2005,” write economists from the RAND Corporation.

A version of this article was printed in the Daily Camera on October 2, 2010.

Thanks to Linda Gorman for the link to the RAND study.

For further reading, I recommend Thomas Sowell’s article “Income Confusion.” He discusses the issue in dept, including income inequality, in his book Economic Facts and Fallacies.

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