Every time another statistic show that Connecticut is the richest state in the nation or nearly so people say, well, that's just Fairfield County bringing up the average.
When you ask folks how much more they think the average resident of Fairfield County makes compared to the average resident of Hartford County, they'll guess 50 percent more, maybe 70 percent more.
But while their guesses at the dollar figure for Fairfield County aren't far wrong, their sense of the average salary for workers in Hartford County is.
The average salary of a resident of Hartford County was $66,852 in 2010, according to data released this past week by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. In Fairfield County, it was $80,241 a year a mere 20 percent more.
Ray Shea, a retired firefighter from West Hartford, guessed that the average salary for those in Fairfield was $75,000, but figured the average salary of someone in Hartford County was $50,000.
"Really!" he exclaimed, widening his eyes when he learned how much he'd lowballed it.
Detailed statistics released this week about the wages, government support and investment income at every county in the nation show that the economic situation of people in Hartford and Fairfield counties are closer than people think and that other counties in Connecticut have lower wages than some might imagine.
In salaries, Fairfield County, ranked No. 13 among 3,113 counties (Manhattan was No. 1) and Hartford County, No. 43, are responsible for pulling up the average in Connecticut. The average salary of all Connecticut residents is $63,681; only New York state is higher, at $66,364.
In per-capita personal income a total that includes not only salary but government payments such as Social Security and, more to the point, investment income Connecticut remains by far the richest state.
The gap between the average salary for Fairfield County residents and the average salary for Hartford County residents is no larger, in fact, than the gap between Hartford and New Haven county residents. And Hartford County residents make far, far more than neighbors in Litchfield, Tolland and Windham counties, where residents earn on average, in the low $40,000s.
The average for Hartford County grew strongly from 2009 to 2010, up 4 percent, but that doesn't mean most people's salaries and bonuses grew that much.
Some of the increase can be attributed to people who had been on reduced hours returning to full-time work, but some is because more educated, higher paid people were more likely to hang onto their jobs during the recession. As more low-wage jobs were eliminated, the average rose.
The data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis did not show wages in 2011, but statewide data suggests that worker pay continued to improve last year. Per capita personal income for Connecticut residents increased by 4.9 percent in 2011, faster than the nation as a whole.
If the total of our personal income, not just wages and salaries, were divided equally among every man, woman and child living in Connecticut, each of us would have received $56,889 last year, and $54,239 in 2010.
Why do Hartford residents earn more than those who live in 3,070 other counties in the country? In most cases, the places that rank in the top 1.5 percent of the country have more people with college degrees than average, and more opportunities to work for either the government or large corporations. Large companies in every sector pay more than medium and small companies 40 percent more, on average.
Looking at those kind of companies in the Hartford area persuaded Johanna Dwier, 31, of Old Saybrook, to estimate that Hartford County's average wage was just $42,000 $30,000 below her Fairfield County estimate.
"All of the big businesses in Hartford are moving out," she said, referring to the fact that The Hartford is selling off some of its divisions and AT&T has moved jobs to lower-cost states. Dwier is an insurance agent, and her fiancι is an insurance adjuster, so she watches insurance news closely.
But when insurance companies sell off divisions, those jobs sometimes stay in the region, under new names. And the state government, which pays better than the average private employer in many categories, has not shrunk dramatically.
So even though people in greater Hartford don't make as much as people in Fairfield County, Boston, California's Silicon Valley, metroWashington, D.C., or Manhattan, we're still pretty fortunate, especially considering that our housing costs are significantly lower than all those cities and suburbs.
Why don't we perceive ourselves that way?
Mark Alicke, a professor of psychology at Ohio University, studies how people make social comparisons. He says, for instance, that if you tell a student in an experiment that he performed in the 92nd percentile among 5,000 people, it won't cheer him if he finds out he's at the bottom of five people in the room.
"It's amazing the degree to which our sense of well-being is determined by our local comparisons," Alicke said.
From an evolutionary standpoint it makes sense, he says tribes were small groups, and in our formative years we compared ourselves to the others in our classroom of 20 or 25.
"People never lose that," he said.
Alicke said it's a little surprising that people in central Connecticut are so ready to compare themselves to people 75 miles away, but the former West Hartford resident theorized that in such a small state, people may see the whole state as relevant.
And, as he noted, it's human nature to feel that what we have is never enough when we know someone else has more.
"My cousin is a celebrity plastic surgeon in New Jersey, so maybe he makes $3 million a year, but he is always cursing out the world," Alicke said. "Once you're making $3 million a year, you're friends with people who make $6 million a year."
Alicke said that even people who are objectively doing quite well for instance, in Greater Hartford, one spouse making $75,000 and one making $90,000 would put the couple in the top 10 percent among households don't think of themselves as rich.
"My wife is a very sensitive, caring person," Alicke said, but because her sister is a banker, "She thinks we're sort of indigent. We're in the 93rd percentile; that kind of blew her away."
David Laspino, 33, of Colchester, was peering into a BMW with his young son at Westfarms mall Friday, but that cue didn't distort his estimate. His grasp of the relative wealth in the two regions was accurate.
He guessed Hartford County's wage would be between $60,000 and $70,000 and Fairfield's would be "closer to 80."
Is he an economist? A human resources manager? A recruiter?
No, Laspino is a paramedic.
"I work in Greater Hartford," he said. "I'm in their homes. I know how they live, both wealthy and poor."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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