Report says Bellingham ranks high in income growth

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 26, 2013 

Bellingham has landed on a list that says residents had some of the fastest growing incomes in the nation - but that doesn't mean local residents are suddenly wealthy.

NerdWallet, a financial information website, recently released a list of cities with the fastest growing incomes between 2007 and 2011. Using median income data from the U.S. Census, the report shows Bellingham had the third-highest income growth percentage increase out of 483 cities during that period, rising 21.1 percent. The only cities with higher median income percentage growth were Chico, Calif., up 32 percent, and Greeley, Colo., up 24.6 percent.

While that's a nice increase for Bellingham workers, it's not really the full picture on what's happening, according to Hart Hodges, director of the Center for Economic and Business Research at Western Washington University. One problem with looking only at the percentage change is that it doesn't factor in the absolute gain - the dollars in your pocket.

Hodges wasn't sure which specific U.S. Census data NerdWallet used for its report, so he looked at the state data on average wages between 2007 and 2012 in Whatcom County. He found that during that period, Bellingham's average wage rose 19 percent, just slightly less than NerdWallet's median income total. For comparison, the average wage in King County rose 17 percent the same period.

Comparing the absolute dollar gains, however, shows King County residents added an average of $9,628 in income for that period, while Whatcom County added $6,463, according to Hodges' analysis. That's because Bellingham had a lower income starting point.

"Would you want a 19 percent increase rather than a 17 percent increase? Or would you want a larger absolute (dollar) increase? I'd pick the latter," Hodges said.

As to why this area has a higher percentage of income increases than many other communities, Hodges believes one factor is that many Bellingham employers merely kept up with inflation during that time period.

He noted the communities that gained around 10 percent during that period actually lost ground to inflation. That's a lot of communities - for example, Washington, D.C., had the 17th highest percentage increase during that period, yet incomes increased just 9.7 percent, according to NerdWallet.

"I think that's the bigger issue we should be looking at," Hodges said, referring to the number of communities losing ground to inflation.

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Reach Business Editor Dave Gallagher at 360-715-2269 or dave.gallagher@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Business Blog at bellinghamherald.com/business-blog or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldbiz.

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