Low energy prices and fizzling fracking boom have prevented full job recovery in Wyoming

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CHEYENNE, Wyoming — Wyoming lost some of its middle class and jobs because of the Great Recession — but its losses were the smallest in the nation, a research organization says.

A report by Stateline, a journalism project for the Pew Charitable Trusts, found that 51.2 percent of Wyoming resident were considered to have middle class incomes in 2013, as opposed to 51.5 percent in 2000. High-paying energy and government jobs likely cushioned the state from a steeper middle class decline.

The report defined middle class as those earning 67 percent to 200 percent of each state's median income, said Scott Greenberger, executive editor of Stateline. Adjusting for inflation, the earnings of Wyoming residents grew from $52,215 in 2000 to $58,752 in 2013.

All 50 states and Washington, D.C., experienced a decrease. Wyoming's 0.3 percent slide was lower than the national median decrease of 3.5 percent, the report found.

However, not everyone was able to earn enough to remain middle class, Greenberger said.

The lack of income growth can be attributed to the Great Recession of 2008, said Anne Alexander, an economist at the University of Wyoming.

"The recession has technically been over for a while because unemployment has been going down, but the one thing that everybody still points to is that wage growth is still pretty paltry," she said.

Pew also looked at total employment numbers since the recession, finding that not a single state can claim with confidence that it has entirely recovered. And in most states, overall employment is still well behind where it once was.

Barbara Rosewicz, a director at the Pew Charitable Trusts, said the findings suggest the employment picture isn't as rosy as official unemployment rates suggest. She said there are several factors contributing to that, such as an increase in the number of "discouraged" workers.

"The unemployment rate doesn't count people who've given up looking for a job," Rosewicz said. "When we look at the employment rate, we look just at the number of people working as a share of the population."

Wyoming is currently enjoying one of the higher overall employment rates — 81.1 percent, compared with the U.S. average of 76.7 percent. But that's still 4.3 points below where it was in 2007, according to Pew's numbers.

But Rosewicz said Pew isn't as confident in Wyoming's employment decline as it is for many other states. She said Pew pulled its employment figures from the Census Bureau, which surveyed 60,000 households across the country to come to its employment numbers.

Since Wyoming is the least populous state, Rosewicz said that limited polling can make it easier for smaller states' data to skew in one direction or another.

Still, Tom Gallagher with the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services' research and planning section said there's plenty of statewide data to support the conclusion that Wyoming hasn't caught up to its pre-recession employment numbers.

According to the state's most recent estimates from February, Wyoming is still about 4,100 jobs shy of where it was in the third quarter of 2008, which is when Gallagher said state employment last "peaked."

Wyoming's recovery has been stymied by energy development in other states.

"We once had kind of a monopoly on natural gas that was not that costly to develop," Gallagher said. "And then in the interim we have fracking, which changed the whole structure of the market for petroleum and natural gas across the country."

Gallagher said Wyoming's recovery has been further impacted by the recent sharp decline in oil prices, which has led some oil producers to hold off on further developing their wells. As that industry slows, Gallagher said, it ripples into several other important job sectors.

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