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Soybean harvest

Galen Roebke harvests soybeans Tuesday on his farm four miles east of Seward.

High-paying blue-collar jobs lifted incomes in West Virginia, New York and Illinois last year, even though the states lost residents, while farmers and government workers shared the pain of more stagnant income in Nebraska, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

The new per-capita income numbers show how national policies and international markets directly affect state and local pocketbooks. Deregulation in the United States and a heat wave in China boosted coal demand in West Virginia, for example, while overseas mining and farming led to more giant truck manufacturing in Illinois. At the same time, U.S. tariffs hurt Nebraska soybean farmers.

Nationally, per capita income rose 1.4 percent between 2017 and 2018 after inflation, about the same as the previous year’s 1.6 percent, according to a Stateline analysis of Bureau of Economic Analysis data. The most recent peak was 4 percent growth between 2014 and 2015.

West Virginia had the biggest per-capita income growth in the nation, with a 3 percent increase to about $40,600 after inflation.

The boost in the Mountain State stemmed largely from natural gas and coal jobs, said Brian Lego, economic forecaster for the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University.

“Coal and natural gas, and natural gas pipeline construction, all pay high wages, so that helped push up wages,” Lego said. “Health care and business services also helped, but energy and energy-related infrastructure played the largest role.”

West Virginia still ranks next to last for per-capita income, ahead of only Mississippi, despite the increase last year.

Meanwhile, the administration’s trade war with China took a toll on Nebraska, one of the nation’s most agriculture-dependent states. Sales of soybeans and other food to China suffered, said Ernie Goss, a regional economist at Creighton University in Omaha. Low oil prices also kept a lid on profits from corn-based ethanol, he said.

Nebraska ranked last in per-capita income growth, with almost no change after inflation, at about $52,110.

“Agricultural commodity prices are just not high enough to support solid earnings,” Goss said. “In fact, there were losses by most farmers because of low prices, which are about oversupply but also the trade disagreements.”

Farm woes also translated to lower income for owners of retail stores where farmers shop and for suppliers such as seed merchants, he added.

Other agricultural states eked out modest increases, despite tariff troubles, because of more diversified jobs, Goss said. Kansas, for instance, has a successful aircraft construction industry that can help it weather downturns in agriculture, he said, and the state saw a modest gain of 0.7 percent after inflation to a per capita income of about $50,200.

Elsewhere, New York state saw a boom in construction jobs, fed by new office and other non-residential buildings in New York City. Washington state also had high income growth as the digital economy remained strong. New York saw a 2.5 percent gain in per capita income, and Washington 2.8 percent.

Maryland and Washington, D.C., both had relatively low income growth of less than half a percent. Both had drops in government employment under the Trump administration.

Manufacturing and construction both had a good year in Illinois after lagging in recent years, said Jim Muschinske, revenue manager at the state Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability.

“Those are some of our historically poorer-performing segments and some of our higher-paying jobs, so we had at least a temporary break from that troubling trend,” Muschinske said.

That helped boost Illinois’ per capita income 2.4 percent after inflation, to $56,933, the fourth-highest increase after West Virginia, Washington and New York. Illinois also surpassed Colorado and Minnesota to rank 13th among the states.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-2647 or molberding@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LincolnBizBuzz.

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Business editor/reporter

Matt Olberding is a Lincoln native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who has been covering business for the Journal Star since 2005.

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