Study: Income gap steep in Berkshire County

A new study by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington shows that, in the Berkshires, the top 1 percent of workers earned an average of $771,813 in 2015, or 19.1 times the average of all others ($40,349).

The gap between top incomes and the other 99 percent remains higher in the Berkshires than in the state's other three western counties, a new report shows, suggesting durable inequality in a region famous for Gilded Age cottages.

A study by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington uses federal tax data from 2015 to show that just as "all politics is local," as the saying goes, earning power through wages and investment income can be as well.

Teton County in Wyoming, for example, a popular getaway among the ultra-rich, has the biggest income gap in the nation.

To make it into the top 1 percent by income in that Rocky Mountain county, you had to pull down $22,508,018 in 2015. Those people made 142.2 times more than the average income of the other 99 percent.

The report, "The New Gilded Age," lists that Wyoming county as the most extreme example of income inequality in the nation.

In the Berkshires, the dollar figures are far more modest, with the top 1 percent taking home an average of $771,813 in 2015, or 19.1 times the average of all others ($40,349).

Those figures placed Berkshire County at No. 482 on the list ranking the most lopsided incomes. The list included 3,061 counties.

The numbers reflect findings in a 2017 report conducted by the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation in Sheffield.

That study, "A Closer Look," pointed to increasing inequality and also to economic pressures on working families.

Justin Burke, the foundation's director of marketing and communications, said the project explored a growing economic gap, not just in terms of income.

"Deepening inequality was, in fact, one of five themes that surfaced from our assessment," he said in an email message.

Peter Taylor, president of the foundation, says stagnant income and increasing rates of poverty hold people back.

"Moving up the income ladder has gotten harder to do, here at home and around the country," Taylor said in a statement, when asked about the impact of income inequality on the region's future. "This has created a stubborn opportunity gap for lower-income kids, and left too many adults lacking high-quality jobs with career opportunities."

Incomes have not been rising at the rate of inflation in the Berkshires and beyond, resulting in a relative loss of buying power.

And though the region's poverty rate — then 11 percent — was under the national average by four points, poverty had increased since 2000 in most communities in the foundation's 68-municipality survey. The foundation included parts of Connecticut, New York and southern Vermont in its study area.

Compared with Massachusetts as a whole, the income gap in all four western counties documented in the Economic Policy Institute's July 19 report is narrower, reflecting relatively less income inequality.

The most dramatic gap for the state came in Suffolk County, home to Boston, where the average income for the top 1 percent was $2,796,952, or 53.6 times the average for all others ($52,149).

For Massachusetts, it took an average income of $1,904,805 to make it into the top 1 percent, 30.8 times the average income of all others ($61,694).

The national numbers show slightly less inequality. The top 1 percent for the whole U.S. took in an average of $1,316,985, 26.3 times the average of all others ($50,107).

County in detail

The institute makes all of its data available on spreadsheets. The Eagle reviewed Berkshire County income numbers for the years 2010-15 and found that the gap has remained steady, with the highest 1 percent earning 19.1 to 22.9 times that of the average of all others. The figures include both earnings from jobs and from investments.

The average income of the top 1 percent ranged in those years from a low of $718,167 in 2011 to a high of $861,347 in 2014.

The average for the other 99 percent ranged from $37,383 in 2011 to a high in 2015 of $40,349.

Elsewhere in Western Massachusetts, the picture was about the same.

The top 1 percent of people reporting income in Hampden County took in, on average, 17.1 times more than the average of all other earners. That figure was 14.6 times in Hampshire County and 13.9 times in Franklin County.

Though Hampshire and Franklin counties share a border, the average incomes for the lower 99 percent of earners were markedly different. In Hampshire, with its five higher-education institutions, it was $50,134, and in Franklin, it was $39,879.

Nationally, income growth since the Great Recession has favored high earners, the Economic Policy Institute said.

"So far during the recovery the top 1 percent of families have captured 41.8 percent of all income growth. The distribution of income growth has improved since our last report (in 2016), when we found that the top 1 percent had captured 85.1 percent of income growth between 2009 and 2013."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.