Last week, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics released per-capita personal income (PCPI) for metropolitan areas in 2013. For Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, income grew 0.7 percent to $38.745.
This placed the sixth-most-populous city and 12th largest metro area at 285th in growth against other American metropolitan areas. It was not a good year for growth. The metro average was 2 percent. Booming Seattle ranked 223rd.
The truly troubling number is the actual income. The national average was $44,765.
Compare it to other similarly large metropolitan statistical areas: Boston (10th largest), $61,754; San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward (11), $69,127; Detroit-Warren-Dearborn (14), $42,887; Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue (15), $55,190; Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington (16), $51,183.
Or compare metro Phoenix with smaller metros against which it competes for talent and capital: Austin, $44,760; Charlotte, $41,645; Denver, $51,946 and Portland, $46,461.
Metro Phoenix comes in lower than any other large metro with a big city in it. What's going on?
Back in the 2000s, the Republic's "Goldwater" Institute alumnus op-ed Columnist for Life would dismiss the dismal annual per-capita income showings by denigrating the validity of the statistic and trotting out high percentage growth of PCPI for a quarter. His, er, logic also thinly pointed to bunches of poor Mexicans holding back the number.
In reality, PCPI is one of the gold standards economists use to determine personal well-being. To be sure, it aggregates everybody's income. In Seattle, for example, that means the population from Bill Gates to the part-time McDonald's worker. Nevertheless, it is an essential benchmark.
And those high growth percentages turned out to be a distortion from massive population increases. At the end of each year, Phoenix would still trail the national average. Bunches of low-skilled Mexican immigrants? Metros such as Chicago and LA absorb far more than Phoenix and turn in better incomes.
Another tactic of the denialists has been to say, "It's cheaper to live here!" That won't wash, either. While housing is relatively inexpensive compared with many places, staples — especially the gasoline that this car-addicted metro depends on — aren't much cheaper if at all.
The reality is that Phoenix is largely a working-poor metro with a limited, low-wage economy. Although some rich people have houses in Paradise Valley and north Snottsdale, most probably declare their income "back home." It wasn't always that way, as this graphic shows:
Things began to diverge in the late 1980s as "growth" took over as the dominant sector and efforts to replenish lost headquarters and the declining legacy tech sectors failed. The successful economic-development efforts entailed attracting cheap back-office work, such as call centers (100 percent turnover). "Growth" brought plenty of jobs through the 2000s, but they tended to be low-paying, in construction, real estate "services," restaurants, retail and tourism.
Over the past decade, Phoenix's fall comes into stark focus:
Now it has even been overtaken by San Antonio, a metro with a tourism and military economy (and Mexicans!) that had historically trailed its peers.
The closest parallel can be found in California's "Inland Empire." Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, which ranks as the 13th most populous metro, posted per-capita personal income of $33,025 last year.
Indeed, on these benchmarks the boosters love to change the subject. We're better than Fresno! El Paso! You don't have to shovel sunshine! Championship golf! It's all the Mexicans' fault! So Phoenix, you're doing better than Riverside, Calif. Rock on.
In reality, this data are only the latest confirmation that Phoenix is not punching at its weight in the global economy. This represents countless personal tragedies and great missed opportunities for the metropolitan area. It is competing against the Austins, Seattles, Shanghais and Amsterdams of the world whether it wishes to or not.
And all the tax cuts and deregulation in the world won't fix it. Indeed, the blue metros consistently turn in superior performance.
I see no economic strategy coming from the Ice Cream Man that will change this.
Things could be worse. Tucson, with about a million people, had $37,063 (Similarly sized Tulsa, $47,297). Elsewhere in the state: Flagstaff, $35,933; Lake Havasu City-Kingman $27,971; Prescott, $32,503; Sierra Vista-Douglas, $36,612; Yuma, $27,483.
In every case, below a national average that includes metros in Alabama and Mississippi and West Virginia.
One benefit to the reds in our Cold Civil War to keeping (white) people poor is that it stokes their fierce anger over falling out of the middle class. Except it is employed in the service of the very policies and political party most to blame. Nowhere is this more evident than Arizona.