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Income Inequality In NC Surpasses Pre-Recession High

Income trends in North Carolina
Economic Policy Institute
Income trends in North Carolina

In North Carolina, the average top 1 percent earner takes home more than 20 times what the average earner in the bottom 99 percent earns, according to new research published by the Economic Policy Institute.

The average income for the top 1 percent in North Carolina was $903,000 while the average income for the bottom 99 percent was $44,000. That 20.6 top-to-bottom income ratio is below the averages for both the nation and the South, but – like everywhere else in the country – has risen sharply in the past few decades and has again surpassed pre-Recession levels.

"I think it's clear looking across the states, and you could say the same about North Carolina, that incomes at the top have grown much faster than they have for everyone else," said Mark Price, an economist at the Keystone Research Center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and co-author of the report.

Furthermore, the EPI report finds that inequality isn't isolated in urban areas. While Charlotte has the highest top-to-bottom ratio in the state, rural counties feel the inequality, too. Macon County, tucked in the western finger of the state, has the second highest inequality ratio of all counties in North Carolina, behind only Mecklenburg.

Raleigh, the state's second-largest city, has only the 19th highest top-to-bottom ratio in the state, behind towns like Kinston, Goldsboro, Brevard and Kill Devil Hills. Raleigh ranks No. 367 in the nation by the income inequality ratio.

"Rising inequality affects virtually every part of the country, not just large urban areas or financial centers," said Estelle Sommeiller, a socio-economist at the Institute for Research in Economic and Social Sciences in France, and co-author of the report. "It's a persistent problem throughout the country, in big cities and small towns, in all 50 states. While the economy continues to recover, policymakers should make it a top priority to grow the incomes of working people while reigning in corporate profits."

To qualify as a 1-percenter in North Carolina, an individual would need an income of $343,066. While this EPI report focused primarily on the top 1 percent of earners, it also points out that the top sliver of that population drastically out-earns the bottom even in that upper crust. In North Carolina, the top .01 percent – or the highest paid 505 workers in the state – had an average income of $17 million in 2015. The minimum income for that stratosphere was $6 million in 2015, according to EPI.

"For the rest of us what this data is revealing is essentially that the labor markets have not been working terribly well. They've not been spinning off the kind of income growth that we used to enjoy. And that certainly is somewhat troubling," said Price.

In North Carolina, the top 1 percent of earners took in 17.2 percent of all incomes in the state in 2015. That's up from 16.5 percent in 2017 and just 8.5 percent in 1973.

The trend of rising income inequality has been widely studied since the Great Recession. Data in this latest EPI study shows the trend is more pronounced in North Carolina than across the nation. In North Carolina, income inequality was actually higher in 2015 than it was in 2007. That was true in only six other states. Overall, income inequality in North Carolina is still below the national average.

"North Carolina probably stands out among many of the states in terms of its rapid overall economic development over time. So that makes a lot of sense that you've had a bit more of an increase than other places."

Jason deBruyn is the WUNC health reporter, a beat he took in 2020. He has been in the WUNC newsroom since 2016.
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