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Woolf: Calculating Median Income

02/13/12 7:55AM By Art Woolf
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(Host) According to economist and commentator Art Woolf, it’s not a simple matter to determine how much income the average Vermonter earns.

(Woolf) If we’re talking about an individual's earnings, we certainly don’t want to include children or students, and possibly not retirees, who are living off past earnings.

Instead, we may want to ask how much the average Vermont family earns, which could include more than one wage earner. But that’s not easy either. Over the past three or four decades there have been significant changes in the structure of families in the U.S. and Vermont - changes in the divorce rate and more single parent families, to name a few.

Another problem is whether or not to count non-family living situations. As we get wealthier, and family structures change, there are far more people living by themselves than in the past. In Vermont, one out of every four houses and apartments has only one resident.

And even if we do manage to define what we mean by a Vermonter - an individual, a traditional or non-traditional family - we’re still left with the challenge of measuring income.

The U.S. Census publishes income data, but not many of us could accurately respond to a Census interviewer who asked how much money we earned last year. At best it would be a guesstimate and at worst a lie.

That’s one reason I prefer to use the information that all of us provide to the Vermont Tax Department every April 15. That’s not an estimate; and if you lie you can be fined or sent to prison.

And my analysis of that information finds that the average married couple in Vermont earned $66,600 in 2010.

Whether that’s a lot of money or a little can only be answered in comparison to something, and one good comparison is with average Vermont married couples’ income in the past.

There’s some bad news and some good news in that comparison. The bad news is that it’s less than it was in 2005, '06, '07, and '08. That’s what a bad recession does.

The good news is that it’s higher than it was in 2009 - a clear sign that our economy is beginning to recover and that ordinary Vermonters are benefiting from that recovery.

Looking further back in time, we find that the average Vermont family’s standard of living is fifteen percent higher than it was in 1990 and forty percent higher than it was in 1980. A growing economy has meant a growing income for Vermonters.

So it’s reasonable to expect that family incomes probably grew in 2011 and will continue to grow in 2012 and '13. And if the next thirty years are like the past thirty, it’s probably safe to predict that the average married couple family in Vermont in 2040 will be earning the equivalent of more than $90,000.

As to what the average Vermont family will look like then... that's anybody's guess.
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