State median income ranks 7th nationwide

— The Colorado median household income jumped last year to $45,253, the seventh highest in the nation, the Census Bureau reported.

At the same time the state saw a slight decrease in the number of people living in poverty, with only 8.7 percent of 4 million Colorado residents falling in that category.

Those two positive trends underscore ''the greatest growth period the state's ever had,'' said Dave Larson, an economist with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

''We've had a strong economy in this state that goes back to the very late 1980s,'' he said. ''And we've had rather terrific growth over the past few years.''

The latest Census Bureau figures, released on Thursday, represent two-year averages between 1997-98, compared with the same period 1996-97.

The state median household income, nearly $7,000 higher than the national average, grew 4.7 percent from $43,224 in 1996-97. The U.S. growth rate was 3.5 percent.

The Census Bureau defines poverty as income of $16,660 or less for a family of four. About 8.7 percent of the state's population falls into that category, according to the latest census figures, compared to 13 percent nationally.

In comparison, the poverty rate across America has dropped over the past several years, falling from 13.3 percent in 1996-97 to 12.7 percent last year.

Colorado population growth over the past several years, much of it comprised of white-collar workers, has helped fuel the state's hard-charging economy, according to economists.

More high-tech companies are relocating to the state, drawing skilled workers with them.

''A lot of this is due to the rate of high-tech growth in Colorado,'' said Tom Dunn, state legislative economist. ''Those jobs have a very high rate of pay.''

The trend, Larson said, has had a ripple effect on the other end of the wage scale, stimulating demand for the lower-paid service and trade occupations that help pull people off welfare and out of poverty.

The state unemployment rate has been at historic lows for three years, hitting 2.9 percent in 1999, said Dunn.

But job growth, which averaged 3.8 percent annually through much of the heady 1990s is expected to slow down slightly, he said, to a projected 2.8 percent next year.

And the unemployment rate is expected to gradually increase, rising to 3.6 next year and 3.8 in 2001.

''Economic performance has been rock solid for the last four years,'' said Jeff Thredgold, an economic consultant in Colorado with Vectra Bank. ''But it's in the process of slowing down right now. But that's a function primarily of an inability to find people to hire.''

In the mid-1990s, Colorado and other western state were flooded with the estimated 1.3 Californians who fled that state's poor economy, Thredgold said.

Now, that trend is reversing with the Golden State economic resurgence, trigging a wave of migration back to California.

Larson said there are downsides to the otherwise positive talk about growth and income levels. They include a higher cost of living and traffic congestion, among other nuisances of life in the fast line.

''It's sort of the price you pay,'' said Larson. ''Of course, if most people had the choice, they'd take the strong economy.''

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