JUNEAU (AP) -- Three other states appear to be catching up to Alaska in median household income, according to Census Bureau figures released Tuesday. As recently as three years ago, Alaska stood alone at the top.
Alaska's median household income averaged $51,046 from 1997 to 1999, according to the report. That's the highest among states surveyed. But Maryland, New Jersey and Connecticut are so close behind that they fall within the survey's sampling error, making the contest a statistical dead heat.
The figures use three-year averages because the national survey's sample is too small in any given state to produce reliable results for a single year.
For the three-year period from 1996 through 1998, only New Jersey was on a par with Alaska's median income, which was $52,557 when adjusted for inflation to 1999 dollars.
For the 1995-1997 period, Alaska was at the top of the list even allowing for sampling error.
In fact, the Census Bureau figures appear to show that median household income actually declined in Alaska in 1999 dollars from $53,155 in the 1994-1996 period to $51,046 in 1997-1999.
However, statistician Carmen Devenas of the Census Bureau's income division cautioned that the apparent trend was within the sampling error.
''This survey's not designed to collect state data,'' Devenas said. The results of the 2000 Census will include more comprehensive data, she said.
Nationally, the median household income increased 2.7 percent from $39,744 in 1998 to a record-high of $40,816 last year. Meanwhile, the nation's poverty rate dropped to 11.8 percent in 1999.
In Alaska, the average poverty rate for 1998 and 1999 was 8.5 percent, down from 9.1 percent in 1997-1998. However, the change is well within the survey's sampling error.
John Boucher, a labor economist with the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said he didn't know enough about the Census Bureau's income figures to comment about them. But he said per-capita income has not been growing as fast in Alaska as it has elsewhere.
In that calculation, which divides the state's total personal income by the number of residents, Alaska fell out of the top spot more than a decade ago, Boucher said.
Slower wage growth and the changing nature of Alaska's population are responsible for that shift, Boucher said.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, the construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and the broad building boom that accompanied it produced a large number of single workers earning high wages, driving up per-capita income.
Since then, Alaska's population has come to include more children and retirees, driving down the per-capita income.
At the same time, wages in parts of the Lower 48 have skyrocketed as employers compete for workers with key skills in a booming economy.
''There's no high-paying high-tech sector, for instance, in Alaska that is driving up wages at a phenomanal rate,'' Boucher said.
Boucher said the same trends could have a similar effect on household income.
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