Area earnings still shrinking in comparison to rest of U.S.

Northern San Joaquin Valley incomes continue to fall behind the rest of the nation.

Personal incomes averaged $41,455 in metropolitan regions nationwide last year; Stanislaus County incomes averaged $29,463. That's about 29 percent less.

Residents earned even less in Merced County: $25,221. In San Joaquin County, the amount was $29,178.

Valley incomes always have been lower than elsewhere in the country, but statistics released Thursday by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis show the gap is widening.

On a per-person basis, Stanislaus residents earned nearly $12,000 less than those in other metropolitan regions last year. In 2003, the difference was about $8,700.

"We all talk about this region's poverty, and these income statistics do not bode well for the economic parity of this region compared to the rest of the country," said Shawn Kantor, an economics professor at the University of California at Merced.

Kantor said valley residents are losing ground compared with what those elsewhere earn. In 2003, for example, Stanislaus' per-capita income was nearly 74 percent of the nation's metropolitan average, but it dropped to 71 percent last year. Merced dropped from 65 percent to 61 percent. San Joaquin dropped from 74 percent to 70 percent.

"This is really not very good news," said Kantor, who joined UC Merced in 2004. He said when people don't earn as much, "they don't spend as much and the economy suffers, especially the retail sector."

Of the 366 metropolitan regions measured in 2008, Stanislaus incomes ranked 309th, San Joaquin was 318th and Merced was 355th.

While the Bureau of Economic Analysis calculated that valley incomes increased from 2007 to 2008, the growth was significantly less than elsewhere in the nation.

Stanislaus per-capita incomes increased 1.6 percent, San Joaquin 1.5 percent and Merced 0.8 percent. Average for metropolitan regions was 2.2 percent and for the nation as a whole it was 2.5 percent.

The valley's economy was better last year than it is now. Unemployment in the three counties has jumped more than 5 percent in 2009 compared with 2008, according to California's Employment Development Department statistics.

And many of those who still have jobs are earning less than they did last year because of pay cuts and furloughs. Most valley families also received economic stimulus checks of as much as $1,200 from the federal government in 2008, but there's no such rebate program for 2009.

"If you think these 2008 income numbers are bad, just wait until the 2009 numbers come out," warned Jeffrey Michael, director of the University of the Pacific's Business Forecasting Cen- ter. He predicted that this year's per-capita incomes may be as much as 1 percent lower than last year's.

"Remember, these income numbers aren't adjusted for inflation," Michael said. So residents must find other ways to compensate for increased consumer costs.

The per-capita income also isn't adjusted for family size. It is calculated by dividing all personal income in a region by the total number of residents -- including children.

"We have a lot of nonearners here because we have a lot of children here," Michael explained. "Our income looks better when it's measured by the household or family."

But the valley's biggest income problems stem from the education level of its residents and the types of jobs available here, said Edward Erickson, an economics professor at California State University, Stanislaus.

"Agriculture is still our predominant economic base, and ag doesn't pay much," Erickson said.

Fortunately for valley residents, Erickson said, the cost of living here is lower than in many other metropolitan areas.

Income levels nationwide also vary greatly.

McAllen, Texas, had the country's lowest per-capita income in 2008: $19,377.

Bridgeport, Conn., had the highest per-capita income: $82,266.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at or 578-2196.