Michigan incomes rise for first time since 2007

Christine MacDonald and Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Incomes in Michigan are on the rise, signaling an improvement after years of decline, new census data released today shows.

But experts warn those gains — also seen in southeast Michigan — haven't been shared by the state's poorest residents, pointing to only a slight decline in the overall poverty rate.

Michigan's median household income in 2013 rose to $48,273, increasing 1.7 percent from 2012, according to the American Community Survey. Experts said it is a modest jump, the first significant one since pre-recession 2007. But it is still more than $5,553 below that year's statewide median income level.

"It's good news, but we still have a ways to go," said Kurt Metzger, director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit who reviewed the numbers. "It is the first real indication of some kind of improvement."

For the six-county southeast Michigan area, median income increased 1.9 percent to $51,857.

But an estimated 17 percent of people statewide live below the poverty line, which was a drop of only 0.4 percent from 2012. It wasn't a significant decline Metzger and other experts said. Southeast Michigan saw a similar 0.5 percent drop to 16.9 percent living below the poverty line, which is an income of $23,550 for a family of four.

The income increase is "healthy" said, Xuan Liu, Southeast Michigan Council of Governments manager of data analysis, who cautioned that the stubbornness of the poverty rate is troubling. The state's poverty rate ranks 14th in the nation, tied with seven other states, Metzger said.

"The gap is not closing," Liu said.

Nationally, median income increased 0.6 percent to $52,250 and the poverty rate dropped just 0.1 percent to 15.8 percent.

When considering Metro Detroit counties, the income results were mixed. Oakland saw an increase of 4.4 percent to $67,202 while Livingston dropped almost 8 percent to $70,707. Levels in Macomb, $52,851, and Wayne, $40,487, were basically unchanged from 2012.

"I suspect it is fallout of the rebound of the auto industry in the entire region," said Robert Daddow, Oakland County deputy county executive. "The number of permits are up. New houses, subdivisions are going up in areas that have sat empty for years."

Officials in Livingston County were baffled about their median income drop.

Census counties

"I can't explain it," said Carol S. Griffith, chairwoman of Livingston County's Board of Commissioners, a Realtor and the president of the Michigan Association of Realtors. "The only thing I can think of is we are somewhat of an aging county and the numbers could reflect people retiring, or leaving the workforce ... or younger people downsizing."

Kathleen Kline-Hudson, director of county planning in Livingston, said she was also "puzzled" by the numbers.

"We have a large commuter group here, going to work in Lansing, Ann Arbor, Flint and Metro Detroit communities," she said. "But it hasn't changed; we haven't changed."

Eric Guthrie, a state demographer, said in an email to The News that the drop might be an outlier, and that it's too soon to draw conclusions.

A bright spot for Michigan: the number of adults with college degrees increased by 0.9 percent to 26.9 percent.

Several communities, such as Rochester Hills, Troy and Farmington Hills, had more than half of adults with a bachelor's degree or better and median household incomes exceeding $70,000.

In Detroit, median income edged up to $24,820, which experts said wasn't significant.

Metzger said he was struck by the disparity between the city and neighboring Oakland County, where the median income is almost three times higher.

"Next door to each other and the difference is tremendous," Metzger said.

He said 2012 census numbers showed that households with incomes below the median were moving lower down the scale and it appears that 2013 numbers show the same.

"It was very clear that a rising median household income does not mean all boats are being lifted at once," he said.