Household income in Massachusetts rose dramatically last year — by 5.3 percent — second only to Idaho nationwide, according to the latest numbers released Thursday by the Census Bureau.
Significantly, the gains weren’t split by inequality or confined to those in upper income brackets. Total income for the median household — the one right in the middle of the income ladder — reached $75,300 in 2016, compared with $71,500 in 2015. There also were raises across all education levels, from high school dropouts to people with PhDs.
Among racial groups, black families gained the most, a welcome change for a group that has long struggled to dig out from the recession of a decade ago. Black-led households enjoyed a 10 percent bounce in income, with Asian households close behind. And while Hispanic families didn’t match those numbers, their household incomes increased by 3 percent.
But amid the upbeat statistics, there were some notable geographic disparities. Average households in west-central parts of the state actually saw their incomes fall: by 1 percent in Hampden County, around Springfield; nearly 4 percent to the north in Franklin County.
For these areas, income losses are a sad continuation of a longer trend, driven by the erosion of the state’s rural economy and the post-manufacturing struggles of Springfield.
But there was another, less familiar weak spot in the 2016 Massachusetts economy: Norfolk County, just south of Boston, which includes communities such as Wellesley, Milton, Dover, and Quincy.
There, too, household incomes dropped by more than 2 percent, despite the continuing strength of Boston and its northerly suburbs.
It could be a blip, but it could also speak to some more serious regional inefficiencies. The job market is just too good in Greater Boston for the benefits not to trickle south, unless that trickle is being blocked by limited transit options, inefficient zoning, or some other concrete impediment.
These few dark spots aside, however, the burning question isn’t so much “what’s going wrong here or there?” but rather “what’s going right everywhere else, and how can we do more of that?” Because 2016 wasn’t just a lucky one-off.
True, conditions were especially propitious last year. Between January and December, Massachusetts businesses created approximately 50,000 new jobs and pushed the unemployment rate down a full percentage point. Together, those make a big difference in terms of family income because they mean more family members can get jobs, or better ones.
But Massachusetts is actually enjoying a multiyear upward trend, with households steadily climbing the national income ladder. Just since 2007, it has passed New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Hawaii — so that today the state has the fourth-highest median income in the country.
If you’re wondering about the secret sauce, start with the resilience of Greater Boston, which has found a way to bind universities, startups, and health care giants together to form the kind of knowledge-based economy that the 21st century seems to reward. Few cities can match what Boston has achieved, and only two can boast higher household incomes.
Education is another factor. Thanks to good public schools and a bounty of private colleges, we continue to have the best-educated workforce in the country — in an era when higher education has become the sine qua non of higher wages.
But if you find yourself feeling complacent, it’s worth looking at the cautionary tale just to our south. Connecticut was once like us, a fast-growing economy with good wages and an uncanny ability to attract star companies in the hottest industry (finance).
But those days are now gone. Companies are leaving the state, which is eroding the tax base, damaging the housing market, and striking at family budgets.
Good times do sometimes end, especially when you don’t adapt to changing circumstances.
Right now, Massachusetts is outperforming virtually every other state, when it comes to putting more money in the pockets of average families. But lackluster growth south of Boston is a sign that we might not be doing enough to connect all residents to economic opportunity — even when it’s right here.