Personal income in Maine grew by 0.85 percent in the first quarter of 2012, according to federal data released Wednesday, mirroring the national average and potentially setting the stage for broader economic growth.

Economists see the increase in personal income, which includes money from sources such as salary, rental income and interest income, as potential momentum for more spending, economic growth and greater hiring.

Personal income rose 0.85 percent from the fourth quarter of 2011 and has increased 2.3 percent since the first quarter of 2011, according to the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Since the first quarter of 2007, just before the recession hit, personal income in Maine has risen12.3 percent.

“Personal income can be a leading indicator, meaning that income is going up so spending will increase and the overall economy will improve and hiring will increase,” said Charles Colgan, professor of public policy and management at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service. “But I take first-quarter data with a grain of salt because of seasonal fluctuations. It’s good that it’s positive, but I’m not going to be really optimistic about it until we see a couple quarters of growth.”

Last year, Maine lagged the rest of the country and had the slowest rate of personal-income growth.

In the first quarter of 2012, Maine’s income growth ranked 28th nationally and was slightly behind New England’s overall growth of 0.96 percent.

In Maine, per capita income was $37,973 in 2011, below the national average of $41,663, said the Bureau of Economic Analysis. First-quarter data for 2012 was not available.

Glenn Mills, chief economist of the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research, agreed that the personal income data must be tracked for a long time to properly reflect trends.

“It’s a snapshot of the money going into the state,” Mills said. “Looking at little, short periods is not very meaningful.”

A longer-term view would reflect events like last year’s closure of the Brunswick Naval Air Station, which employed about 5,000 people at its peak, Mills said. That data would be reflected in the second-quarter year-over-year numbers.

Nationally, personal income rose in 47 states during the first quarter, fell in Kansas and Mississippi, and was unchanged in Oklahoma.

Earnings increased in 16 of the 24 industries that the Bureau of Economic Analysis monitors, with the largest increases in the accommodations and construction industries.

The largest contributions to earnings growth were in health care and professional services.

Staff Writer Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

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