Census Bureau: Household income fell in the Carolinas after recession ended

The median household income in Mecklenburg County fell by nearly 8 percent in the five-year period after the recession ended in 2009, according to an Observer analysis of new census data. The median income now stands at an estimated $56,472.
The median household income in Mecklenburg County fell by nearly 8 percent in the five-year period after the recession ended in 2009, according to an Observer analysis of new census data. The median income now stands at an estimated $56,472. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

The recession ended in 2009. But for most people in the Charlotte area, household income continued to tumble after that turbulent time, an Observer analysis of new census data shows.

It’s a tough trend that mirrors patterns across the Carolinas and nationally.

The median household income estimates come from surveys from 2005-09 and 2010-14 that asked for people’s income over the past year.

This is the first time a five-year American Community Survey by the Census Bureau could be compared with the prior five years. The new numbers conveniently cover the post-recession period.

Nationally, the median household income fell by 6.6 percent to $53,482. In Mecklenburg County, income fell by nearly 8 percent and now stands at an estimated $56,472.

Other local counties saw more precipitous falls, including Rowan, where median household income dropped by 16 percent. That’s the second biggest drop in the state, behind only Cherokee County.

Cabarrus County fell by nearly 10 percent, and Gaston declined by more than 9 percent, the analysis shows.

“We’ve not seen a meaningful growth in median household income for quite some time,” said Mark Vitner, a Charlotte-based senior economist with Wells Fargo Securities. “This one statistic is probably the source of more frustration with the economy than anything else.”

Behind the fall

There are several reasons for the drag on income, Vitner and other experts said.

Even though the recession technically ended in 2009, its effects could still be felt for several years afterward in areas such as unemployment rates, poverty rates and home values.

Some industry sectors with strong concentrations in the Charlotte area, such as banking and construction, were hit hard by the recession. Labor growth has been sluggish, and rising health care costs also eat away at people’s income, experts said.

“The (income) data from 2010-14 doesn’t really look like the recession is over,” said Rebecca Tippett, director of Carolina Demography at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Carolina Population Center.

And because the survey covers households rather than individuals, other factors also might be at work, said Laura Simmons, a demographic expert at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. That includes increases in single-parent homes or people in rural communities who are retiring even as younger wage earners are not moving into those areas to drive up wages.

Nationally, the Census Bureau reported that only 6 percent of all counties had a statistically significant increase in household income in the five-year period after 2009.

North Dakota, in the midst of an oil boom, was the only state with no statistically significant decline in any county’s median household income, said Ed Welniak, chief of the income statistics branch of the Census Bureau.

Much of the rest of the nation showed a consistent pattern of decline or stagnation, and Welniak said North Carolina and South Carolina followed that blueprint.

Around the Carolinas

Welniak said only one county in the Carolinas saw a statistically significant increase in its median household income: Graham County, in western North Carolina along the Tennessee border.

Lancaster County, S.C., had a slight increase of 0.8 percent, the only Charlotte-area county to show any income gain.

Statewide, South Carolina’s median household income declined by 6.3 percent to $45,033 while North Carolina’s fell by 6.1 percent to $46,693.

Wake County’s median household income fell by 5.7 percent, which was less of a drop than Mecklenburg’s 7.9 percent decline.

Among local communities, Charlotte’s median household income fell by nearly 8 percent to $53,274. Concord declined by nearly 11 percent and Matthews dropped by nearly 14 percent.

Still, there are some glimmers of optimism in the Charlotte region.

Union County’s median household income, for instance, only declined by 0.6 percent. Iredell County saw a 2.5 percent drop.

Union, especially along its border with Mecklenburg, remains a growth magnet for the relatively affluent, said UNC’s Tippett. The same holds true for the Lake Norman area in Iredell County, she said.

Some economic indicators also have been improving recently, such as the unemployment rate. It stands at 5.2 percent in Mecklenburg County as of October, less than half of its peak rate in late 2010.

The Charlotte area remains a beacon for people in the Northeast looking to relocate for a lower cost of living, Vitner said.

And in a recent report, Wells Fargo predicted strong job growth in North Carolina in the new year. The Charlotte metro area had one of the strongest job markets in the country this year, the report stated.

All that makes the income numbers even more vexing. As Vitner put it: “People feel we should be doing better today.”

Database editor Gavin Off contributed.