A recent topic of conversation on the radio has been a comparison of different metropolitan areas in the state of North Dakota. There are many metric used and combined to create these types of rankings and the value of any of them depends on the interests of the readers and the interests of the people in the communities. Sometimes they measure things that are not relevant to people. I prefer to deal with simpler discussions of more definitive measures like income or wages. We can always branch out into broader discussions if needed, but starting focused is better. In keeping with this I offer up the following graph.
I look at median income by occupational categories as well as the overall median across all occupations for the metropolitan areas of Fargo, Bismarck, and Grand Forks. The top median income for each occupational category is listed in the chart as well. The overall median income in Bismarck was $41,410, in Fargo was $39,560, and in Grand Forks was $37,430. The story is a bit different when looking at the different occupational categories.
The Grand Forks metro area has the highest median income in a few occupational categories when compared with these other two, six categories to be precise. Now being the winner out of three metro areas is somewhat irrelevant really. I also make point comparisons between the median income of Grand Forks with each of Fargo and Bismarck. At the median level, when Grand Forks matched up with Fargo, it had higher median income in nine categories, while Fargo was higher in ten categories. The interesting outcome is the differences in the median income between the two. When Grand Forks had a higher median income the average difference was $1,635. However, when Grand Forks had a lower median income compared to Fargo the deficit was $4,610. So while the number of categories was roughly the same between the two metro areas when Fargo had the higher median income in an occupational category it was much higher than when Grand Forks was the higher income. I make the same comparison between Grand Forks and Bismarck.
Bismarck has higher median income than Grand Forks in more categories than Fargo did. Interestingly the median wage difference is narrower. When Grand Forks has the nigher median income it his higher by an average of $2,140, and when Bismarck is higher the gap is $3,375. The point still stands that the median incomes are higher in general in Bismarck and Fargo than in Grand Forks, though it is a bit more nuanced when we look at the occupational breakdown. This was the median income level, we can also look at different parts of the income distribution.
Looking at the same comparisons but at the higher end of the income spectrum tells a similar story. The gap between Fargo and Grand Forks is $6,330.. When the Fargo occupational category pays more it pays more by $9,269. When the Grand Forks occupational category pays more it only exceeds the Fargo category by $2,370. So at the high end of the income distribution Fargo expands its gap with Grand Forks. The same is not true for the relationship between Bismarck and Grand Forks though again it is complicated.
Grand Forks is only higher than Bismarck 90th percentile of income level in 5 of the 20 categories. Across all categories Bismarck is higher by $5,240. The average gap when Grand Forks is higher is $6,988 and when Bismarck is higher it is a gap of $6,815. In this case however, Bismarck is higher in many more occupational categories.
The gap persists at the lower end of the income distribution too. Across all occupation categories Fargo is higher than Grand Forks by $930, while Bismarck is higher than Grand Forks by $2,130. When Fargo is higher income in a category it exceeds Grand Forks by $2,463 while in the reverse situation Grand Forks exceeds Fargo only by $1,814.
The same situation occurs with the Grand Forks comparison with Bismarck. When Bismarck is higher it is higher by an average $2,892, while when Grand Forks is higher it is by $2,280. Again, Grand Forks is only higher in 6 of the occupational categories.
Much of the radio discussion in the last few months focused on the differences between Grand Forks and other communities. I maintain that Grand Forks is still not sure of its identity, though JT thinks he has hit on it, whether the community agrees is a different matter. However, with the various income gaps across the distribution between these three metro areas I think there is a need to confront the fact that many occupations pay more elsewhere in the state. Is it worth a few thousand a year in compensation to live in Grand Forks? That is a terribly subjective assessment and likely idiosyncratic to each individual. For some the answer will be yes, though for others the answer is no. The fact that the distribution is not in Grand Forks’ favor is something that seems pretty clear and needs to be addressed as part of the community’s plan going forward.