The numbers confirm what many Alaskans feel. The Last Frontier is not enjoying the national economic boom.
Figures released by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis show that Alaska was dead last among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in per capita income growth during 1999. Alaskans' per capita income grew 2.5 percent -- less than half the rate of Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, Colorado and 16 other states. In Wyoming, personal income grew 7 percent last year.
Alaska now ranks 17th in per capita personal income. As recently as 1995, Alaska ranked seventh, and 20 years ago the state was at or near the top of the list. Without the growth of the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend and increased federal spending, Alaska would be even further down the list.
Why does this matter?
Because personal income statistics reflect the kind of economic opportunities people have. They also reflect the quality of jobs people can find and hence the quality of life.
Another five years of this trend, and Alaska will rank closer to the bottom 20 in personal income than the top 20.
First, there's the decline in employment in the natural resource industries -- oil in particular but also timber. Second, the diminished significance of union jobs in the economy. Union jobs in many cases pay higher than nonunion positions of the same type. Third, the growth of the service industries, which in many cases also tend to pay less despite the obvious benefits they offer. Fourth, the continued absence of a strong cash economy in most of rural Alaska. Fifth, the failure of any new high-paying sector of the economy to emerge. Alaska is no high-tech haven.
There is no immediate remedy for any of this. Alaska is caught in trends that have been taking years to develop and will take years to reverse.
It will be interesting to see what the federal income statistics say about us next year. This year they offer symptoms of economic stagnation.
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