Local News

Highlands income among lowest in Florida

SEBRING - Highlands and its neighbors, DeSoto, Hardee, Okeechobee, Hendry and Glades, are the poor relations of Florida's counties, according to a U.S. Census report.

The data ranked U.S. counties by median household income and found the Northern Virginia areas adjacent to Washington, D.C., were at the top.

Among them were Fairfax County at $106,690 and Loudoun County at $118,934.

By contrast, at $34,722, Highlands County ranks 57th among Florida's 67 counties. Two neighbors, DeSoto and Hardee County, rank 61st and 60th at $33,602 and $34,012.

Okeechobee County households earned slightly more at $34,742. Hendry County also ranks higher at 49th with $36,515 and Glades is 47th with $37,004.

Those are farm-ranch counties, noted Greg Harris, chairman of the Highlands County commissioners, and agricultural jobs traditionally pay lower than others. Highlands County is also a retirement haven with a third of its population 65 or older.

"We're one of the oldest-age counties in the nation," Harris pointed out. "Also, we have great lakes and fishing here, but we don't have a lot of big industries. But I think that what balances that out is the quality of life here. And the expenses aren't crazy here like other places. There's a trade off."

Miami-Dade and Polk counties are in the middle of the list at $41,311 and $41,377.

Madison is the poorest of the 67 counties with $31,469 per household, followed by Dixie, Hamilton, Levy and Calhoun.

The median statewide income is $45,006, which compares with the national median of $51,371.

The 2012 data are from the Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates program, which provides the only current, single-year income and poverty statistics for all sizes of counties and school districts ? roughly 3,140 counties and 13,544 school districts nationally.

"Metropolitan counties along the East Coast continued to have the highest median household income and lowest poverty in the country," said Lucinda Dalzell, chief of the Census Bureau's Small Areas Estimates Branch. "These counties are located in large metro areas, such as Boston and New York, and are heavily concentrated in the Northern Virginia portion of the Washington area; Northern Virginia alone accounted for about one-fifth of the nation's 50 highest-income counties."

Five of Florida's 11 richest median household incomes also border the Atlantic: St. Johns County at $62,112, followed by Nassau, Seminole, Palm Beach and Broward. Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys, borders the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic. Two other Gulf counties, Sarasota and Collier, also border the Florida Peninsula on the Gulf side.

The census findings also show that median household income is higher in nearly half of the counties in the Dakotas now than it was before the recession began in 2007. Between 2007 and 2012, 55 of the 119 counties in North and South Dakota increased significantly in median household income due to an oil and natural gas boom. Only 56 of the remaining 3,023 counties or equivalents nationwide could claim increases. Incomes declined in 89 percent of U.S. counties.

Among the counties with school-age child poverty rates higher than the national average of 21.1 percent in 2012, 75 percent were in the South. In 2012, of the 13,544 school districts, 14.7 percent had poverty rates greater than 30 percent.