The same near-record share of America's population is still poor. Household income is down for another year and by a whopping 8 percent since 2007, the year before the recession.
And then there's Nebraska, where household income is the highest ever and 10 percent higher than the national average.
The latest census figures, released Wednesday, paint a national picture of a still-stagnant middle class with a flat poverty rate of 15 percent, where the bright spot was an increase in Americans with health insurance.
But Nebraska stands out for its median household income, which at $55,616 in 2011 was 2.7 percent higher than it was the previous year and well above the national and Iowa numbers.
That Nebraska is outperforming most of the country at a time when recovery still feels like recession is not a total surprise. The state's unemployment rate — 4.0 percent in July — is among the nation's lowest.
While low unemployment helped the metro areas, farm earnings buffeted the rest of the state.
Those earnings grew by over a third between 2010 and 2011. And that measure doesn't even count farm-support industries, which also did well.
“We've seen better profitability in farming than we've seen in a lot of years,” said John Crabtree, media director for the Lyons, Neb.-based Center for Rural Affairs. “But it's more complex than it looks.”
While crop-growers have enjoyed high commodity prices, Crabtree said, ranchers and dairy farmers have struggled. He also said skyrocketing land and rental costs have edged out would-be and younger farmers.
Nebraska has been sheltered from bursting tech and housing bubbles, which hit other regions of the country harder, said Eric Thompson, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln economist who directs the Bureau of Business Research. Before either bubble burst in 1999, when the national median household income stood at a high point of $54,932, a figure adjusted for inflation, Nebraska was about $2,800 behind.
“The economic stability plays a sizeable part,” said David Drozd, a research coordinator with the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
More census income data is coming next week that will give a clearer idea of what's happening in cities. But Drozd said Omaha — which last year saw a decline in real income — still has large employers in enough different sectors to help the city “weather the storm.”
Iowa's story echoes what's happening nationally. Median household income in Iowa peaked in 1999; in 2011, it was $50,219, down slightly from the previous year.
But when household income growth is compared in two-year weighted averages — a more accurate measure given year-to-year volatility — Iowa's net household income fell 4.5 percent, while Nebraska's rose 4.6 percent. This pushed Iowa to 36th among states; it elevated Nebraska to third.
Why the difference between two seemingly sister states, especially given the agriculture role?
Iowa was hit by manufacturing losses. Appliance giant Electrolux bought Maytag and moved manufacturing from Webster City, Iowa, to Mexico, cutting 925 jobs — among tens of thousands of jobs Iowa lost in the past decade, according to news reports.
Dave Swenson, an Iowa State University economist, said the state has weathered “some persistent declines” in manufacturing but has recaptured a number of jobs. He acknowledged farm incomes have been “robust” but said ag is a small part of the state's overall economy. The rest of Iowa's economy, he said, flatlined.
“Stuck in neutral,” Swenson said. “It's waiting for the rest of the U.S. to get healthy because that's where we sell our stuff. We really depend on the rest of the country to drive our economy.”
Thompson, the Nebraska economist, characterized the difference between Nebraska and Iowa this way: “Part of that Iowa economy is more like an Illinois, a Michigan and an Ohio — they're more of an industrial midwest state,” he said. “And we're a pure Plains state.”
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