The average hourly wage for Idaho workers last year was $18.48, bringing in 84 percent of the national average and earning a rank of 45th among the 50 states, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The state's 2012 median wage, where half the workers make more and half make less, was $14.58 an hour, or 87.3 percent of the national median. That's down slightly from 2011's 87.6 percent, though Idaho's national ranking remains the same - 42nd.
The latest report continues a mostly downward trend since 2001, when Idaho's median wage equaled 91.3 percent of the national median, said Bob Fick, communications manager for the Idaho Department of Labor.
The decline is partly attributable to a shift away from production jobs to service jobs, which average about $10,000 per year less, Fick said.
Peter Crabb, professor of finance and economics at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, said people should not make too much of the latest figures. The wage-only ranking is leavened by a relatively low cost of living that makes Idaho's low wages go farther, he said. Wage data also don't reflect productivity, he said.
"I can't say I'm seeing any definitive trends," Crabb said.
But Mike Ferguson, director of the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, says the report is "consistent with a string of relatively disheartening performance indicators."
"Idaho's economic well-being is slipping - our relative prosperity is falling behind when we look at other states," said Ferguson, who served as the state's chief economist for nearly three decades.
He believes languishing wages are related to Idaho's increased focus on keeping taxes - and thus funding for education and other public services - low, though he added: "There's not an accounting relationship here, to trace from point A to point B and point C."
"In the past, Idaho has stepped up and done things through its tax structure," Ferguson said, noting the creation of a state sales tax in 1965 and various tax changes in the 1980s. But since 2000, he said, tax shifts and cuts have "taken about two-thirds of the gains (in state revenue) we made in the 1980s."
Better education funding could help attract new businesses in fields that pay well, he said.
If low taxes attract business, Ferguson said, "our cup should runneth over ... but business depends on public services to gain optimal productivity."
CUSTOMER SERVICE JOBS
Recession-fueled cuts at Micron Technology Inc. and other high-tech businesses helped tilt the state's job market toward low-paying jobs, he said. By 2009, when it ended chip manufacturing in Boise, Micron had laid off half of the 10,000 workers it had in the Valley in 2005. The company now employs about 5,600 people at its Boise headquarters.
Now, much of the new-job news is dominated by relatively low-paying customer service positions. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' latest numbers show 9,130 customer service representatives in the Boise-Nampa area. A Boise job fair this week to fill jobs at area call centers drew hundreds of hopefuls.
"There's sort of a stagnation effect where you lose the things that are priming the pump, so to speak," Ferguson said. "Then you're left with the things that service a population."
Kristin Rodine: 377-6447