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Benton County Profile

Overview | Geographic facts | Outlook | Labor force and unemployment |
Industry employment | Wages and Income | Population


Regional context

Benton County, named after Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, was created from eastern Yakima and Klickitat counties in 1905. The county is located in southeastern Washington at the confluence of the Columbia, Snake and Yakima rivers. The Columbia River defines the north, south and east boundaries, making the county part of the semi-arid river basin in the rain shadow of the Cascade, Blue, Wallowa and Rocky mountains. Ranching and dryland farming made up the bulk of its economy in the 1800s. Today, it is the ninth most densely populated county in the state with 103 persons per square mile due to its nuclear-related and other research and development. Agriculture is still a large producer in the area.

Local economy

Deer and elk, along with fishing, seeds, roots and berries provided food for the indigenous people in the area even though there is little rainfall. Migrations of whites into the area in the 19th century disrupted the tribal world and, the Indian Wars of the 1850s resulted in tribes being moved to reservations.

The gold rush of 1858 in British Columbia brought the first large group of whites through the area. By the 1870s, cattle and horse ranchers occupied the majority of land in the area. In the 1880s, major settlements along the Columbia River were connected by steamboats and railroads, allowing farmers and ranchers to get products to market. Farming included corn, wheat, alfalfa, potatoes and fruit, especially apples. Many farmers were successful in dry farming. However in the 1890s, the Yakima Irrigation and Improvement Company built the first irrigation canals. With irrigation, railroad and electricity development, there were accompanying expansions of orchards, vineyards, farming and ranching.

World War II brought the Hanford Project into the county to develop the plutonium used in the first nuclear bomb. Continued federal investment has led to scientific diversification and nuclear and chemical cleanup, with skilled engineers and scientists following the jobs. In the late 1980s, Washington State University expanded into the area, offering advanced degrees. The well-educated, trained workforce has made many contributions in agricultural production, processing and research. Over time, the county has attracted a variety of manufacturers, including production of chemicals, fertilizer and zirconium tubing and titanium, along with supporting storage and distribution centers.

Growth and prosperity have continued with population and development centering in Kennewick, Richland and Prosser. Recreational industry and tourist attractions are developing along with the popularity of the wine industry. The economy is tied to agriculture, food processing, medical equipment manufacturing, energy production, nuclear-fuel fabrication, wine production and wine tourism.


Geographic facts

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Benton County Rank in state
Land area, 2010 (square miles) 1,700,38 22
Persons per square mile, 2010 103 9



Benton County economic activities slowed down and decreased in employment in 2012, as stimulus funded projects phased out at Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The downsizing has been felt throughout the region, however, its relative impacts have decreased over the years as the local community is diversifying and increasing its economic base in other industries. Combination of industries, agriculture and food processing, education and healthcare services, retail trade and food services, have helped lessen the impact of the job loss in professional and business services.

Local population growth continues to drive demand for more educational services as well as healthcare, with just over 0.7 percent growth over the year. This marks the slowest growth in these two industries since 2005; with previous five year average annual growth of 4.3 percent. The slowdown seen in education and healthcare industries can largely be attributed to the national, state and local budget cuts and re-allocations.

The good news is that the housing market here is stable with growing housing inventories, and affordable prices. The national and state housing sectors are expanding and growing, which is expected to drive economic growth even in the local area as consumer confidence in buying and selling homes increase. According to Washington state nonfarm projections, Tri-Cities (which included both Benton and Franklin Counties) are expected to be fastest growing area in the state through 2020, but it will be expected to be 1.2 percent points below that of the 2000 to 2010 period.

Manufacturing and construction sectors are expected to lead the way in annual growth at 1.7 percent and 3.4 percent through 2016. In response to growth in manufacturing and agriculture, wholesale trade along with transportation and warehousing industries are expected to expand as well. Also, education and healthcare industries are expected to grow at 3.0 percent a year through 2016.

As the economy becomes more stable and moves forward with new markets, new products and technology in research and development, manufacturing, and wine production and utilization are expected to play a big role in Benton County’s future prosperity.


Labor force and unemployment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

Current labor force and unemployment statistics are available on the Labor area summaries page.

In 2012, total county labor force was estimated at 96,830, about 0.4 percent less than in 2011. Benton County unemployment rate was at 8.5 percent in 2012 which is 0.9 percent higher than in 2011. Benton County unemployment statistics are headed different directions from that of the state or the nation because of Hanford layoffs due to ending of stimulus funds and completion of projects.

For the Kennewick-Pasco-Richland Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA that contains both Benton and Franklin counties), the May 2013 preliminary unemployment rate was 8.5 percent, down from 8.8 percent in May 2012.

Preliminary May 2013 estimates for the combined counties show that the total civilian labor force was down by 1.7 percent, from 133,560 in May 2012 to 131,310 in May 2013. The number of employed residents was 119,940 in May 2013, down 1.6 percent from 121,860 in May 2012. At the same time the number of unemployed workers decreased by 2.8 percent from 11,700 in May 2012 to 11,370 in May 2013.


Industry employment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

Current industry employment statistics are available on the Labor area summaries page.

Total covered employment in Benton County was 78,763 in 2012, down by 3.2 percent or 2,579 jobs since 2011. The five-year average annual growth rate in Benton County for covered employment was 0.9 percent. Average annual wages for covered employment in Benton County was $48,883 in 2012, a decrease of 3.1 percent from 2011 when the average annual wage was $50,522.

In 2012, according to the BLS’ Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, there were 5,398 total establishments in the county, an increase of 3.9 percent, or 205 new establishments, over the year.

Goods-producing industries, which include natural resources, mining, construction and manufacturing, increased in employment from 2011 to 2012 by 1.5 percent, or by 205 jobs. Average monthly employment in 2012 was 13,971 workers and annual wages totaled $559.7 million, which translates to $40,063 average annual wages for goods-producing workers.

  • Manufacturing industry gained employment over the year, growing by 12.0 percent. The averaged employment was at 4,178 jobs in 2012, with average annual pay of $51,528 and a five-year annual average growth rate of 2.6 percent. Manufacturing represented 5.3 percent of total covered employment.
  • Construction accounted for 5.2 percent of the total average annual employment in the county with 4,124 jobs in 529 establishments.
    • The average annual wage in construction was $52,672 in 2012.
    • Over the past five years average employment in construction has been decreasing by 3.2 percent a year. Over the year, however, construction decreased by 11.8 percent.
    • The construction employment loss in 2012 is direct reflection of the continuing Hanford down cycle that has driven construction activities down in 2012 after growth in 2011 of 7.6 percent.
  • Agriculture is one of the base industries in the area, representing 6.1 percent of total employment. It is, however, highly seasonal and volatile from year to year.
    • Average annual employment in agriculture in 2012 was 5,647, up by 20.5 percent from 2011. Nonetheless, agriculture has shown a 2.8 percent average annual growth rate over the past five years.
    • The average annual wage in agriculture was $22,321, mainly due to the seasonality of agricultural activities.
    • Crop production represents 79.1 percent of total agriculture, which is largely in non-citrus fruit farming, including apple orchards, grape vineyards and other produce.
    • Support activities shared 20.9 percent of employment, which includes post-harvest crop activity.

Service-providing industries are a major share (82.3 percent) of the county’s economy. There was an average of 64,971 jobs in 4,504 establishments, which paid an average annual wage of $50,837 in 2012. Over the year, due to layoffs from Hanford service-providing industries decreased by 5.2 percent, or by 3,552 jobs.

  • Finance and insurance industry sector was the fastest growing in 2012 with 6.0 percent change over the year. There were 152 establishments in finance and insurance industry, which provided on average 1,753 jobs. Average annual wage for this industry was at $55,931, which makes it one of the top paying industries in the area.
  • The administrative and support and waste management and remediation industry sector in Benton County has driven employment decreases with an over-the-year decline of 15.5 percent, or 1.771 jobs. Most of the losses from this industry are coming from Hanford, due to completion of Stimulus funded projects.
    • Average employment in this sector was 9,482 in 248, establishments, with average annual wages of $75,517.
    • The primary employing industry is waste management and remediation services.
  • The professional, scientific and technical services industry is the largest private industry in Benton County with a 12.2 percent share of total employment.
    • This industry had an average annual employment of 10,189 in 416 establishments, with the highest average annual wage of $85,216 in 2012.
    • Over the year, this industry contracted by 12.8 percent as the result of federal budget cuts for the Hanford cluster.
  • Retail trade is the third largest employing industry in Benton County, representing 10.9 percent of total employment.
    • Retail trade is a very stable industry with a five-year average annual growth of 0.8 percent.
    • In 2012, this industry had an average of 8,585 jobs in 420 establishments, and paid an average annual wage of $25,620.
  • Healthcare and social assistance employment in the private sector was 8,147 jobs, which represented about 10.3 percent of total employment in 2012 with an increase of 3.6 percent from 2010.
    • This industry is one of the fastest growing private industries in Benton County with a five-year average annual growth rate of 3.2 percent since 2008.
    • The average annual wage in this industry was $43,165, in 446 establishments.

For historical industry employment data, contact an economist.

Industry employment by age and gender

(Source: The Local Employment Dynamics)

The Local Employment Dynamics (LED) database, a joint project of state employment departments and the U.S. Census Bureau, matches state employment data with federal administrative data. Among the products is industry employment by age and gender. All workers covered by state unemployment insurance data are included; federal workers and non-covered workers, such as the self-employed, are not. Data are presented by place of work, not place of residence. Some highlights:

In 2011, the largest shares of employment were held by 45 to 54 year-olds at 22.4 percent, which is close to the state’s figure of 22.9 percent and 25 to 34 year-olds, who also had a 22.4 percent share, followed by those 55 years and older at 17.1 percent.

  • The county’s workforce includes 53.1 percent males and 46.9 percent females.
    • Male-dominated industries included construction (84.8 percent), utilities (75.5 percent), wholesale trade (75.1 percent), transportation and warehousing (74.5 percent) and administrative and waste management (71.9 percent).
    • Female-dominated industries included healthcare and social assistance (82.4 percent), finance and insurance (73.4 percent) and educational services (73.1 percent).

Wages and income

(Source: Employment Security Department; Bureau of Labor Statistics; Bureau of Economic Analysis; U.S. Census Bureau; U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey)

In 2012, there were 78,763 jobs in Benton County covered by unemployment insurance, with a total payroll of over $3.8 billion.

The average annual wage was $48,883, below the state’s average annual wage of $51,964. The median hourly wage in 2011 was $23.23, above the state’s median hourly wage of $21.59.

Personal income

Personal income includes earned income, investment income, and government payments such as Social Security and Veterans Benefits. Investment income includes income imputed from pension funds and from owning a home. Per capita personal income equals total personal income divided by the resident population.

In 2011, Benton County’s per capita personal income was $39,700, less than the state ($43,878) and the nation ($41,560).

According to the U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts, the median household income was $61,690 in 2011. The county’s median was slightly more than that of the state ($56,835) and of the nation ($50,502) during the same period.

Benton County’s poverty rate of 12.2 percent is below the Washington state’s rate of 12.5 percent and the nation’s rate of 14.3 percent in the period 2007 to 2011, according to U.S Census Bureau QuickFacts.



(Source: U.S. Census Bureau)

In 2012, Benton County’s population was 182,398 with a 28 percent growth from 2000 to 2012 compared to the state’s growth rate of 17.0 percent over the decade.

The largest city in Benton County is Kennewick with a population of 75,971 in 2012.

Population facts

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Benton County Washington state
Population 2012 182,398 6,897,012
Population 2000 142,475 5,894,121
Percent change, 2000 to 2012 28.0% 17.0%

Age, gender and ethnicity

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Benton County had a younger population in 2012 than did the state.

  • Benton County’s largest population was under 18 years of age (26.6 percent) compared to the state (23.0 percent) in 2012.
  • Residents under the age of 5 years old made up 7.3 percent of the total population compared to 6.4 percent in the state in 2012.
  • In 2012, Benton County’s population 65 years and older made up 12.4 percent of the total compared to 13.2 percent of the state’s population.

The gender split in the county was with 49.9 percent female compared to 50.1 percent in the state in 2012.

Benton County is not as racially or ethnically diverse as the state except in its Hispanic or Latino residents, who can be any race. Hispanics or Latinos were 19.2 percent of the population compared with 11.7 percent in the state.


(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Benton County Washington state
Population by age, 2012
Under 5 years old 7.3% 6.4%
Under 18 years old 26.6% 23.0%
65 years and older 12.4% 13.2%
Females, 2012 49.9% 50.1%
Race/ethnicity, 2012
White 91.5% 81.6%
Black 1.5% 3.9%
American Indian, Alaskan Native 1.2% 1.8%
Asian, Native Hawaiian, Other Pacific Islander 3.1% 8.4%
Hispanic or Latino, any race 19.2% 11.7%

Educational attainment

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

88.2 percent of Benton County’s population 25 years and older were high school graduates over the period of 2007 to 2011. This graduation rate compares to that of the state’s rate of 89.8 percent.

Those holding a bachelor’s degree or higher made up 27.7 percent of Benton County residents age 25 and older compared to 31.4 percent of state residents over the same period.