Three sons of Emery County Commissioner Kent Wilson once worked there as coal miners.
“They mine coal in Wyoming now,” he laments. “When the Deer Creek mine here closed down about four years ago, we lost about 200 jobs that each paid $60,000-plus. Some paid $100,000.”
It was just one of several mines that closed as Utah’s coal country languished.
It’s a key reason why Emery County is branded with a new distinction it did not want: It is the only county in the state that had a statistically significant decrease in median household income in the past decade — while the economy and incomes were booming elsewhere in Utah.
That comes as the U.S. Census Bureau on Thursday released new five-year estimates from its 2014-18 American Community Survey. By combining survey results over five years, it allows looking at smaller-population areas — such as Emery County with 10,000 residents — where small numbers of responses often do not allow that on a year-to-year basis.
“It’s no surprise,” Wilson said about the news that median incomes there dropped. “In the last five years, we’ve had our population decrease by about 2,000. Part of that was Obama’s war on coal,” which he blames on the loss of hundreds of high-paying jobs.
The new estimates show that the median household income in Emery dropped 8.6% in data that spans a decade. It declined from in $56,952 in 2009-13 data to $52,055 in 2014-2018, down $4,897.
Emery County left out of Utah prosperity
Of the 11 counties in Utah with statistically significant changes to median income this decade, only Emery County saw a decrease.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
Graphic by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune
Four other rural counties also showed decreases, but they were too small to be considered statistically significant. They were Box Elder, Grand, Kane and Uintah.
Utah’s other 24 counties showed median income increases, and 10 were considered statistically significant: Cache, Millard, Summit, Tooele, Utah, Wasatch, Washington and Weber.
Examples of growth among those best performers include median incomes going up by 13.9% in Millard County to $60,445; by 12% in Summit to $100,453; and by 10.4% in Wasatch to $77,449.
Statewide in the decade, the new estimates say median household income rose from $63,507 to $68,374, up by 7.7%.
Pam Perlich, senior demographer at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, said the new estimates show Utah’s economy has boomed back from the Great Recession, but not everywhere.
“The median, the center of gravity, of household income is going up. That’s a strong indicator that the community is prospering,” she said. “But we can see that not all communities are prospering.”
She said Emery’s problem was that its economy is not diversified.
“We know that that the story with Emery County is that they've specialized in an industry that's in decline. And I know their economic development people are working to diversify their economy,” she said.
Wilson said among the attempts to bring in new business are efforts aimed at attracting some solar power companies, and the recent opening of a research center hoping to find more environmentally friendly ways of using coal and nuclear power.
Perlich said the generally good news statewide shows how far the state has come since the Great Recession.
Back in 2010, “the economy was at its worst. Foreclosures were at their worst. Unemployment was at its worst,” she said. “We’ve just seen over the course of the decade building momentum, a dynamic of growth.”
She said “knowledge economy industries” have done the best, “natural resource industries not so much” — such as coal.
That means the income growth tended to be highest in urban areas or counties that ring them, while it was slower in rural areas.
Of note for the Wasatch Front, estimates for household median incomes were: $71,230 in Salt Lake County, up by $5,849 in the decade: $70,408 in Utah County, up by $5,418; $79,690 in Davis County, up by $4,361; and $64,636 in Weber County, up $5,132.