Utah is the third poorest state in the nation in terms of per capita income, but that isn't exactly news to Utah's poor.

Nor is it exactly welcome news to state officials trying to promote a positive image for the state."I'm not surprised to hear that we're becoming the Deep South here in the West," said Steve Johnson of Utahns Against Hunger.

"We always hear about the per capita, and they say it's our large families, but the statistics show the individual Utah wage earner pulls in between 10 and 15 percent less than national average. We are a poor state."

The entire Rocky Mountain region slipped into last place in per capita personal income in 1988. The Southeast, which had had the lowest per capita income since 1929, bumped up one notch, according to the report issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Per capita income in the Rocky Mountain states last year averaged $14,282, 13 percent below the national average of $16,444, the Commerce Department reported. In the Southeast region, income averaged $14,331.

Mississippi was last with per capita income of $10,992, followed by West Virginia, $11,658; Utah, 12,013; Arkansas, $12,172; and Louisiana, $12,193.

That report comes on the heels of a report by the Utah Foundation that claims Utahns also pay one of the highest levels of state and local taxes anywhere in the nation - 16 to 22 percent above the national average.

Advocates for Utah's poor are saying the state must admit it has a problem and then plan a strategy to deal with not only those on the welfare rolls, but the working poor that comprise a burgeoning economic class in Utah.

State officials, however, point out there are about a dozen different ways to calculate per capita income, some of which make Utah look better than others. And when all economic factors are considered, Utah's actually looks pretty good.

"Per capita income is only one measure of quality of life, and it's one of the worst measures to judge Utah by because of the unusually high birth rate and the unusually large number of large families," said Bud Scruggs, chief of staff to Gov. Norm Bangerter.

"A third factor is we have a young population, as well as one of the highest, if not the highest, percentage of our young people in college. That tends to lower per capita income."

Scruggs said the Rocky Mountain region has been showing poorly on most economic studies recently because of the dependence of state economies on depressed natural resource-related industries. Utah is addressing that problem through the recruitment of corporations, particularly high-tech companies.

"Utah can no longer afford to be dependent on natural resources if it wants to succeed economically," said Scruggs.

Shirley Weathers of Utah Issues said that Utah's low per capita income should send a message to both economic developers and those in the Department of Social Services not to just look at employment numbers, but also at a livable wage.

"The job market should be carefully assessed to enable us to realistically decide whether to put our emphasis on searching for immediate jobs which may be low-paying and lack necessary health benefits, or whether we should focus on helping people to get education and training they need to be able to look for jobs that pay a livable wage," she said.

Weathers also praised Utah officials who are trying not just to get people off the welfare rolls, but out of poverty.

Joe Duke-Rosati, acting director of the Salt Lake Community Action Program, said he sees a disturbing trend towards more low-paying service jobs. "I believe we're going to experience more low-paying jobs and be possibly worse off," he said, "and certainly if we don't generate other types of jobs, we're not going to make it any better."