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Adding up the numbers

By more than a few measures, the Rochester-area economy enters 2016 with a real head of steam. The ranks of the employed continue to grow and the jobless rate, which fell to 4.6 percent in November, is lower than any time since the start of the Great Recession.

Other encouraging signs include home and auto sales, which are surging compared with year-ago levels.

And, of course, there’s the promise wrapped in the two big announcements of 2015: the decision in July to locate the federal AIM Photonics headquarters here and December’s news that the Finger Lakes region was selected as one of three $500 million winners in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Upstate Revitalization Initiative competition.

Clearly, optimism is warranted. Yet it’s also important to stay clear-eyed—and to do so, it’s helpful to focus on a few key metrics of economic well-being.

One is per-capita net income. After inflation, it rose 1.1 percent in 2014, the most recent data available. That’s a sharp improvement over 2013, when per-capital net income here fell 1.5 percent. However, even with the 2014 gain Rochester ranked only 307th out of 381 metro areas nationwide.

Another key benchmark is real GDP. In 2013-2014, it fell 1 percent, after two years of a declining growth rate.

And then there’s the poverty rate. Recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey show that both overall poverty and childhood poverty in the city of Rochester rose in 2014. Among the 75 largest metro areas nationwide, Rochester has the highest rate of childhood poverty and the fifth-highest overall.

Why are these numbers important? Because the first two measure creation of wealth and the third reflects its distribution among all residents here.

Taken together, all of the available statistics suggest a local economy that’s on a positive track but still faces significant challenges, especially in extending economic opportunity to all. The best way to tackle those challenges is to combine optimism with realistic assessments of progress.

1/4/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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