Nebraska Counties Among Nation's Poorest

Nebraska counties continue to predominate the bottom ranks of the nation's counties for per-capita income, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce's Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Five Nebraska counties are among the nation's poorest 12 counties, lead by Loup County, which moved up one notch from the lowest to second-lowest ranking in the country at $9,281 for 2002. That is compared to a per-capita income of $29,182 statewide and $30,906 nationally for the same period. The recent Loup County figure comes in just $98 above the U.S. Census Bureau's 2002 poverty guideline for a single person. In 2001, the county was $327 above the poverty line.

Other regions around the nation have economies based on agriculture, but the low populations and extreme lack of economic diversity in Loup, Blaine, Grant, Arthur, and McPherson counties are what put them at the bottom of the per-capita income list, said Jerry Deichert, director of the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. "There's not a lot of other jobs out there to kind of offset losses in agriculture."

All five counties have populations under 1,000 and are continuing to lose residents, according to census estimates. Because the five counties have economies focused almost exclusively on a single industry, cattle raising, their fortunes can change quickly from one year to the next, said Deichert. McPherson County, which in 2002 ranked 12th from the bottom with a per-capita income of $12,647, was actually among the top ranking counties back when the cattle industry was fairing better in the 1970s, said Deichert. Each person is also more like a small-business owner who must deduct production expenses than someone who earns a set amount in a check each week. "And so it's not income like wage earners think of," said Deichert, who warned that the income numbers are also only estimates, which sometimes change. For 2001, Loup County's per-capita income was originally listed at $6,235, but later revised to $9,039, which nevertheless kept it at the bottom spot for that year.

Sen. Jim Jones of Eddyville noted that there is only a single town in Loup and McPherson Counties. There are two towns on the map in Blaine County. All three counties fall within Jones' 13-county territory in the Nebraska Sandhills. The area needs new businesses, just five employees would have the same impact as a 50-employee business in Lincoln, said Jones, who also is a rancher in Custer
County. "It'd make that much of a difference in the economy, but you just don't have it." With a lack of major roads, except U.S. Highway 183, which runs through Taylor in Loup County, that would be difficult, though possible if the business were Internet-based, Jones said.

In January, a bill went into effect that would provide tax breaks for businesses that create five new full-time jobs and invest $250,000 in counties with fewer than 25,000 residents. "I need to talk about that a little bit more all the time and get people to look into it," said Jones. "So that will help."

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