HANCOCK COUNTY — A quick comparison of median household incomes throughout Hancock County would seem to paint a picture of disparate and divergent economic circumstances, particularly between the suburban western townships and the rural areas to the east.
A tale of two counties: The haves and the have-nots.
Income numbers released by the United States Census Bureau, which breaks down median household income by ZIP code, indicate that the median incomes of the county’s six easternmost ZIP codes, when averaged together, trail the western third by more than $19,000 annually.
Household income as defined by the census includes the income of the householder and all those ages 15 and over whether related to the householder or not. The median household income is that number directly at the midpoint of the income spectrum for each geographical area, with half the numbers above the line and half below.
When averaged together, the annual median household income for eastern Hancock County stands at just over $51,000, compared to an average median income of $70,294 in western townships.
Census data shows the New Palestine area arguably has the highest median household income of just under $79,000 annually.
Sugar Creek Township also fares the best in terms of poverty, with only 2.5 percent of its nearly 12,000 residents living below the federal poverty line.
The lowest household incomes appear to be situated at the northeast corner of the county, in Brown Township, with the median household income at $42,321.
For the county as a whole, the annual median household income stood at $62,702 with 7.7 percent of county residents living below the federal poverty line.
Taking into account the margin of error that must be considered, one might conclude that households in eastern Hancock County are not doing as well as their neighbors to the west.
Experts who reviewed the numbers for the Daily Reporter, however, say they show a distinction without much of a difference.
“The eastern part of the county is very agricultural, and farms usually report lower incomes,” said Michael Hicks, professor of economics at Ball State University and director of the university’s Center for Business and Economic Research.
Farmers accrue wealth by, among other things, riding the wave of appreciation on their land over time and the increased value of their operations.
For example, the 2012 Census of Agriculture, an in-depth survey conducted every five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, showed the average estimated market value of land and buildings on 608 farms in the county was nearly $1.6 million.
Moreover, agricultural operations report income differently than individuals, said economist Morton Marcus, former director of the Indiana Business Research Center of Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.
“For that farmer, his pickup probably counts as farm equipment, which is different than the guy who drives it back and forth to work. The tax code is very favorable to farmers,” Marcus said.
Like many other businesses, proprietors are able to reduce their reported income through expenses and deductions, the experts say.
“So, even a relatively healthy eastern part of the county would have lower incomes than a rapidly growing suburban or small-town region,” Hicks said.
Age, demographics and geographical circumstance are other factors that must be considered to get an accurate picture beyond the numbers.
Census figures show eastern Hancock residents’ median age is 43 years old, five years older than those living in the western townships, and that has a relationship to the income-versus-wealth calculus as well.
“That area is probably home to an older, established population that also has more wealth than income,” Hicks said.
Though older residents – especially those who have retired – might might not enjoy their previously high incomes, they have amassed wealth in the form of paid-off homes and property and other assets along with reduced expenses.
“Their major expenses are behind them – the mortgage, college loans, college tuition – whereas younger folks have higher levels of income but lower levels of wealth,” Hicks said. “They’re in a different part of their life-cycle.”
The number of people within the household would also affect the census data.
Marcus points out that the last decade has seen a number of residential multifamily and apartment complexes constructed in the western townships that could skew the numbers by having only one member in the household, and there also might be a greater number of multiple income households in the suburban areas.
And then there is the affluence of Hamilton and Johnson counties partnered with the Indianapolis metropolitan area that pay high wages for those willing to make the drive.
“The big difference clearly is there are a number of people who commute into Marion, Hamilton and Johnson counties to work,” Marcus said.
That money pot does not exist for the most part the farther east you go.
Overall, however, analysts see simply two areas of the county concentrating efforts in two different directions that produce, predictably, two different pictures.
When combined, Hicks said the county is positioned well for the kind of growth that first brings families to live here, which then brings business and economic opportunity.
“It should be exciting for the long-timers to see the lifestyle they’ve developed is attracting a younger generation. The towns of the future are going to be places people want to live,” Hicks said.
“Businesses right now are focusing on people,” he said. “Having a talented labor pool is really important, and business is looking for good communities to get and retain good workers.”
The bottom line: Hancock County’s variety of incomes, business sectors and demographics continue to percolate toward a sound future, according to those with the knowledge and not just the numbers.
“My forecast over the long term is that Hancock County is going to grow significantly,” Hicks said.