In 2020, New Jerseyans' personal income increased by 6.8%, seven-tenths higher than the national average and in the top 20 in the country, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

But the term "personal income," in this context, encompasses wages, dividends and interest, and a category known as transfer payments.

That last classification, according to Charles Steindel, resident scholar of the Anisfield School of Business at Ramapo College, includes unemployment insurance and federal relief programs such as those enacted to soften the blow of COVID-19.

For much of the pandemic, New Jersey's unemployment rate stayed above the average nationwide, and Paycheck Protection Program loans fell under the transfer payment umbrella as well.

So when those gains are extracted, Steindel said, New Jersey actually did quite poorly last year, both measured by itself and against the rest of the United States, with wages in the Garden State declining 1.2% while the nation as a whole rose 0.3%.

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"It was a mixed bag. The underlying economy producing income didn't do so well, but we did get a lot of checks from the federal government," Steindel said. "It was those 'other things' which propped New Jersey up. We got an enormous amount of transfer payments from the pandemic programs, an unusually large amount."

Those numbers don't even tell the whole story, according to Steindel. Unemployment was historically high, but higher income earners generally made it through the last 12 months unscathed, skewing the wage totals.

"People at the lower end don't earn a lot of income, so them losing their jobs doesn't hold down the number quite as much," Steindel said, adding that those who did keep their jobs might have also been victims of wage freezes, as their companies tried to adjust to the "new normal" without cutting personnel.

Yet even with more federal stimulus lining New Jerseyans' pockets to begin 2021, Steindel predicts a wage rebound of sorts, which he said actually began at the end of 2020, before losing steam in the winter months.

The good thing about federal aid, he said, is that when people get it, they spend it, and that helps the economy.

"Our personal income looked very bad in the fourth quarter because quite frankly, we had a lot of the stimulus money and when it gets withdrawn, we don't look good," Steindel said. "But our earnings were starting to turn around."

Steindel thinks New Jersey's outlook should improve even further as the weather warms, vaccinations increase, and restaurants get closer to full reopenings.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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