Maine’s household income rose faster than the national average last year.

Overall, Maine’s economic gains were modest as reflected in the American Community Survey, produced by the Census Bureau and released Thursday. But they still represented a positive sign and allowed Maine to move up in the state-by-state rankings of household income.

Last year, Maine’s median household income rose 3.07 percent from 2015 to 2016. Nationally, the increase was 2.38 percent.

The increase was strong enough to place Maine 33rd in income growth among the 50 states.

Across a five-year span, Maine’s income climbed 13.6 percent from 2012 through 2016, from $46,709 in 2012 to $53,079 last year, according to the survey, and outstripped the national figures in which median family incomes climbed 12.1 percent over the same period, from $51,371 in 2012 to $57,617 last year.

In 2012, Maine ranked 36th in income growth.

The recent figures likely are largely because of the state’s tight labor market and the lowest unemployment rate in decades, economist Chuck Lawton said.

In addition to helping to drive wages up, that shortage draws people who are on the sidelines back into the job market and entices those with jobs to work more hours, he said.

“Some of the people who were working part time move to full time and that becomes positive for (household) income,” said Lawton, who writes a column for the Portland Press Herald.

But the growth is likely only sustainable if Maine can attract more workers, especially at a rate that exceeds the number of older workers who are retiring or cutting back on their hours, Lawton said.

“It’s a question of increasing the labor force and getting people who have dropped out to get back in and getting more in-migration,” he said. “It requires more than just drawing people out of the unemployment rolls.”

POCKETS OF POVERTY

The survey also revealed some troubling signs for the Maine’s economy.

Although the state’s poverty rate remained below the national average and the state had a slightly higher-than-average percentage of people with health insurance, the Census Bureau figures also show that pockets of poverty in rural areas remain a persistent problem. Also, there’s sharp demographic inequality.

Statewide, 12.5 percent of Mainers have incomes below the poverty level, which is $24,600 for a family of four, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Nationally, 14 percent of U.S. residents have incomes below the poverty level.

But when those numbers are broken down by age and geography, the inequality emerges. For instance, the poverty rate in York County was 7 percent among children younger than 5 last year, well below the statewide average of 19.1 percent and the national rate of 21.3 percent in that bracket. But in Aroostook County, more than a third – 37 percent – of very young children live in a household where the income is below poverty level.

“There’s been a decline in manufacturing, which has put a lot of prime-age males out of work” and lowered family incomes, said Catherine Reilly deLutio, chief research officer and a principal with Maine-based 45 North Research.

She noted that labor force participation, a measure of the number of people either working or actively looking for work, has begun to slip in parts of Maine. And the lack of affordable child care may make it hard for Mainers in more rural parts of the state to work, she said.

York County has a lot of child care options, she said, while Aroostook County has far fewer and that is likely reflected in the early childhood poverty rates. It may be a particularly difficult problem for single-parent households, she said, where finding affordable child care means the difference between earning a living or not.

DeLutio said the ACS figures also highlight how the poverty rates differ for very young Mainers and the state’s older residents. Social Security and Medicare work the way they were intended to aid the elderly, she said, and were started at a time when older people often made up the poorest subset of people in the country.

In Maine, the percentage of those 65 years or older living below the poverty line was 9.1 percent last year and nationally it was 9.2 percent. Even in Aroostook County, where roughly one out of every three children is living in poverty, the poverty rate of 8.4 percent for those 65 and older is below the national level.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

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