Arkansas is a relatively low income state, but it is also a state with a very low cost of living. A dollar of income supports more real spending in Arkansas than it would in other, more expensive parts of the country. New data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis documents the low cost of living in Arkansas using measures known as Regional Price Parities (RPPs).
RPPs measure the average price of goods and services in a geographic region compared to other regions in the U.S. The figure below displays these measures for the 50 states and the District of Columbia, as of 2015. The most expensive state in the nation is Hawaii, with prices that are 18.8% above the national average. At the other extreme, the cost of living is only 86.2% of the national average in Mississippi, almost 14% below average. Arkansas comes in at #3 on the list of states with the lowest cost of living, with a RPP of 87.4.
While the cost of living is lower in all areas of the state, there are differences among the RPPs for regions within Arkansas. As shown in the following table, the cost of living is highest in the Northwest and Central Arkansas metropolitan areas. Nonmetropolitan areas of the state have a RPP of 83.9, implying a cost of living that is 16% below the U.S. average. Among metro areas, Jonesboro is the least-expensive place to live. In fact, Jonesboro’s RPP ranks it with the 7th lowest cost of living among all 382 of the nation’s metropolitan statistical areas.
The table also shows that differences in rents–or housing costs more generally–drive the overall differences in cost of living. Goods prices tend to vary relatively little in different parts of the country. The cost of services, which have a significant locally-produced content, vary more substantially. Rents, on the other hand, are entirely local prices and therefore display the largest region-specific component.
Real Income and Local Inflation
By adjusting incomes in states and regions for differences in cost of living, RPPs can be used to calculate measures of purchasing power that provide real (price-adjusted) measures of income. Typically the term “real income” is used to describe measures that are adjusted for inflation, or price differences over time. In the context of RPPs, the adjustment covers differences over both time and space.
In the latest data, for instance, the RPP for Arkansas rose from 87.1 in 2014 to 87.4 in 2015. Because the RPP for the entire U.S. is 100, by definition, this means that prices in Arkansas rose by 0.3 percentage points more than for the nation as a whole. U.S. inflation was 0.3% in 2015 (as measured by the implicit price deflator for personal consumption expenditures) so Arkansas’ inflation rate was about double the national average for that year. Actually after rounding to the nearest one-tenth of a percentage point, the inflation rate implied by Arkansas regional price deflator was 0.7%. Other states’ regional price adjustments indicated inflation rates ranging from 1.2% in North Dakota to -0.7% in Delaware.
The figure below illustrates the varying path of price-level changes in Arkansas compared to the national average. The U.S. the data are annual percent changes in the implicit price deflator for personal consumption expenditures. For Arkansas, the data represent implicit price deflators based on the annual RPP statistics. The two measures of “inflation” track fairly closely over time. Over the five-year period, cumulative compounded price changes totaled 9.5% for the U.S. and 10.6% for Arkansas, implying that the cost of living in Arkansas was rising slightly toward the national average, on net.
The following table shows the growth rates of total personal income and real personal income in Arkansas, adjusted for differences in inflation and regional prices. The table decomposes total income growth from 2014-15 into real and inflation components (the percent growth columns). For Arkansas statewide, nominal (dollar) income rose 2.2%, with 1.4% attributable to real income growth and 0.7% to overall price increases (with the remainder due to rounding error). The highest real income growth rate in the state was in the Fayetteville metro area, with 3.7% nominal income growth and 0% inflation. Nominal income in Pine bluff increased only 0.1% in 2015 but prices declined by 0.5%, resulting in an increase in real income of 0.6%.
Real Per Capita Income
One commonly used measure of local economic well-being is per-capita personal income. In dollar terms, per capita income in Arkansas was $38,257 in 2015, which amounted to just under 80% of the national average. When we take into account the higher purchasing power of incomes in Arkansas, real per capita income is over 91% of the national average. The table below shows how the adjustment for purchasing power changes the relative standards of living implied by per capita incomes in Arkansas’ metro areas. The accompanying figure illustrates the differences among areas.
The highest per capita income in the state is in the Northwest Arkansas metro area. In dollar terms, per capita income is 9% above the national average. After taking account of the fact that the cost of living is over 10% below the national average, per capita income in the Fayetteville metro area is 22% above the national average–in terms of purchasing power and standards of living. The very low cost of living in Jonesboro has a particularly large impact on this real income comparison. In dollar terms, per capita income in Jonesboro is only 70% of the U.S. average, but after adjusting for prices it amounts to 86%.