Parsing New Hampshire’s fiscal disparities
By many metrics, there are large differences between the more urban regions of New Hampshire, primarily in the southeastern part of the state, and less urban regions in the west and north.
The southeast’s larger population centers, higher resident median incomes and lower poverty rates compared to the western and northern regions suggest a generally more vibrant economy. However, examinations of smaller areas within county boundaries show significant disparities as well.
NHFPI’s recent analysis, “Measuring New Hampshire’s Municipalities: Economic Disparities and Fiscal Capacities,” seeks to describe these experiences through available local-level data.
Limited data are available to understand municipal-level economic conditions. Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau provides information about poverty rates and household incomes in counties and larger communities in New Hampshire, but often these data are too limited at the local level to permit timely, meaningful comparisons. Data from public assistance and other programs give indications of income levels and service needs in communities and provide measures of economic conditions.
Income levels in different communities combined with the property values per capita within municipalities indicate community fiscal capacity. Places with greater fiscal capacities have an easier time raising funds, particularly for public goods, such as schools and infrastructure, due to a higher property value per resident or a higher-income population.
Greater fiscal capacity bolsters the ability of local governments to provide businesses and residents with quality services, such as well-supported schools, roads and bridges in good repair, adequate public safety and emergency services, libraries, parks and other amenities. These investments may also attract new businesses and residents, building local economies.
There are notable differences between areas of greater economic growth in the state, particularly in the southeastern part of the state and parts of the Upper Valley, and generally more rural areas of the state outside of these regions. However, local data show that large disparities exist within regions.
Student eligibility for free and reduced price school lunches varies considerably by district, with 6 percent or less of pupils eligible in the 10 lowest districts, and the 10 highest districts identifying 50 percent or more students as eligible. Within certain counties, however, there are also large disparities; almost 58 percent of Manchester’s students are eligible, while neighboring Bedford has less than 5 percent. Similar local discrepancies exist within Grafton County and Merrimack County.
Enrollment in the food stamp program is also low in suburban southeastern towns and generally higher in rural western and northern parts of the state, but disparities also exist between communities within counties.
Rochester and Dover, neighboring cities in Strafford County, have very similar population sizes, yet Rochester had more than twice the number of food stamp participants as Dover. Hooksett had approximately 5,000 more residents than fellow Merrimack County municipality Franklin, but Franklin had 900 more participants than Hooksett.
Most municipalities with estimated median household incomes above the statewide median are in a triangle between Canterbury, New Castle and New Ipswich and bounded by the Massachusetts border to the south. Estimated incomes were generally similar to or lower than the statewide median in most areas outside of this triangle, especially in Coos and Carroll counties and with the notable exception of near Lake Sunapee and the Upper Valley.
Federal tax return data show similar regional trends, but there are large differences within Grafton and Hillsborough counties. Wide disparities also exist in property values per capita, with extremes ranging from over $1.3 million in taxable property valuation per capita Newington to less than $40,000 in Berlin; the median municipality had about $116,000 of taxable property value per person.
Given the importance of local governments in raising funds for and delivering key services in New Hampshire, particularly education, understanding the disparities between smaller communities is key to understanding the varying impacts of state policy decisions on life in the Granite State.
Phil Sletten is a policy analyst at the NH Fiscal Policy Institute. The full report can be found at nhfpi.org.