The Washington Post

How median incomes have changed in the richest and poorest states, in 8 charts

Income inequality in the United States is at record levels. The rich are getting richer, while the middle class struggles to keep pace.

But inequality between the states is actually flattening. Economic growth has risen faster in poorer states than in wealthier states over the last 60 years, statistics show — thanks in large part to government transfer programs like Social Security, Medicare and public assistance.

Those transfers have had a significant effect in reducing income disparities between states and regions, according to a study conducted by two economists and released by the Center for Health Policy Research at the George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. And though Republicans from Southern states have led the charge against government spending, that spending has helped their citizens bulk up their personal incomes.

The researchers, Vic Miller and Leighton Ku, found Southeastern states receiving the most government aid, while Rocky Mountain states tend to receive the least. Government transfers contribute the lowest share of personal income in the District of Columbia, at just 11.7 percent in 2012, and the highest percentage in West Virginia and Mississippi. In those two states, federal programs contribute 26.2 percent and 24 percent to personal incomes, respectively.

Mississippi, though, has a ways to go. In 1952, the average resident made just 51.5 percent of the national average income; today, the per capita income in Mississippi is 77 percent of the national average, still the lowest in the nation.

Here’s how state median incomes have fared every 10 years since 1952, as a percentage of the U.S. median income, according to data Miller and Ku crunched from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (we highlighted the best- and worst-performing state in each case):

And here’s the change between 1952 and 2012:

Per capita income grew fastest in Southeastern states between 1952 and 1982, when income increased by nearly 22 percent, closing the gap with wealthier regions of the country. From 1982 to today, New England states had the fastest relative growth.

Growth in specific states can be tied to individual circumstance. North Dakota languished near the bottom of the pack for decades, before an energy boom rocketed incomes toward the top. Today, the median salary in North Dakota is 125 percent of the national average. Similarly, growth of the federal government has led to much higher salaries in Virginia. In 1952, the median salary in Virginia was 85 percent of the national average; by 2012, it was 110 percent of the median.

Utah has gone the opposite way. In 1952, the median income was 91 percent of the national average. Today, it’s 81 percent. The decline, the authors point out, coincides with the explosion of Utah’s younger population; they simply have more residents who are too young to be in the workforce, driving down median salaries.

Michigan’s median salary has fallen from 113 percent of the national average in 1952, when the auto industry provided good jobs and pensions at high wages, to 88 percent today, as the industry struggles to recover from the recession by restructuring labor deals.

Reid Wilson covers national politics and Congress for The Washington Post. He is the author of Read In, The Post’s morning tip sheet on politics.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Show Comments
The Democrats debated Thursday night. Get caught up on the race.
The Post's Chris Cillizza on the Democratic debate...
On Clinton: She poked a series of holes in Sanders's health-care proposal and broadly cast him as someone who talks a big game but simply can't hope to achieve his goals.

On Sanders: If the challenge was to show that he could be a candidate for people other than those who already love him, he didn't make much progress toward that goal. But he did come across as more well-versed on foreign policy than in debates past.
The PBS debate in 3 minutes
We are in vigorous agreement here.
Hillary Clinton, during the PBS Democratic debate, a night in which she and Sanders shared many of the same positions on issues
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the polls as he faces rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz heading into the S.C. GOP primary on Feb. 20.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
Fact Checker
Trump’s claim that his border wall would cost $8 billion
The billionaire's claim is highly dubious. Based on the costs of the Israeli security barrier (which is mostly fence) and the cost of the relatively simple fence already along the U.S.-Mexico border, an $8 billion price tag is simply not credible.
Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio
Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.