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Chapter III in my ongoing post-mortem of Georgia’s PCI performance from 1980-2020

Late last year, I posted two pieces about Georgia’s per capita income (PCI) performance.  I hadn’t intended to do that.  My original objective had been to take a quick look at a new release of 2020 PCI data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), knock out a quick one-off, and move on. 

But one thing I always try to do, especially when I’m working with a national dataset, is put Georgia’s numbers into a national context.  When I did that with this latest batch of BEA data, I was surprised to find that Georgia had more people and counties at the bottom of the national PCI pile than any other state in the nation.

The straight blue line at the 100% mark represents the national average for per capita income (PCI). The orange line represents Georgia’s performance relative to that national average, based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA).

That became the lede of the first piece.  It also got my curiosity up, and I started backtracking through 50 years of BEA data to see if I could figure out what was happening.  That resulted in the discovery of what I described, in the second piece, as Georgia’s 40-year PCI roller-coaster ride.  The state made massive, almost unmatched gains during the final 20 years of the last century, then surrendered all those gains during the early part of this century.

As a long-ago political journalist (and now an aging political junkie), I couldn’t help but notice how the state’s PCI roller-coaster ride matched up against the state’s political timescale.  All the gains took place under Democratic governors; all the losses followed under Republicans.  I deliberately stopped short of ascribing credit or blame (and still do), but the pattern was (and still is) difficult to ignore.

The political question aside, I began to think the rise and fall of Georgia’s PCI trendlines is a significant part of the overall TIGC story — maybe a key driver in fueling the ongoing divide between urban and rural Georgia and, especially, Metro Atlanta and the rest of the state. I’ve since come to view the story as something of an economics and maybe political cold case, and I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time researching various angles over the past few months (which is one reason I haven’t posted much lately).

Among other things, I began to pick the brains of various contacts who moved in political and economic development circles during that 40-year span; found and plowed through a couple of dozen relevant reports and articles, and took several deep dives into other pots of economic data for the 40-year period.

The result of that research is a couple of binders full of material and several storylines that are tough to bring together in a single piece and would be too long for a blog post even if I did. As a result, I’ve decided to dribble it out in a series of brain dumps that should, if nothing else, help me clear my head so that I can move on to other subjects (several of which have been stacking up over the past couple of months).

Brain Dump No. 1 follows.

———-

One of the first things I learned in my research is that the 40-year PCI roller-coaster ride I reported on in December wasn’t exactly breaking news.

It turns out that the Fiscal Research Center (FRC) at Georgia State University had been monitoring the same metrics (and others) for a while. In September 2013, the FRC published a 26-page report by Professor David L. Sjoquist that, among other findings, found essentially the same roller-coaster pattern I did late last year.

(I say “essentially” because there appear to be some very minor differences in some of the data Professor Sjoquist and his team found in 2013 versus what I found late last year.  I suspect these differences owe to periodic revisions and refinements BEA (which was also Sjoquist’s source) makes to its data.)

The Sjoquist report looked at population, employment, and income trends and noted, broadly, that the state’s growth rates appeared to be slowing.  It also mused about various potential causes for these trends, including poor public schools, the loss of jobs to other countries, bad traffic, even a “leadership vacuum” in the business community (which had indeed been undergoing a transition from an era dominated by homegrown barons like Robert Woodruff, Mills B. Lane and Tom Cousins to a new generation of imported CEOs who headed a wave of new Fortune 500 companies putting down stakes in Metro Atlanta). 

The closest it came to pondering the efforts of the state’s gubernatorial administrations was this bullet point in a section of the report focused on employment trends:

“Georgia may be pursuing the wrong economic development strategy, which currently seems to be focused on providing tax incentives. Perhaps a strategy that focused more on providing a better labor force, infrastructure, and amenities would result in greater net job growth.”

Nor did the FRC take note of the fact that the wind had gone out of the state’s economic sails only after the GOP took over the state capitol.  And, again, that may indeed have been coincidental.  Georgia’s economy was red hot through much of the 1980s and ‘90s, and nothing lasts forever. At least one important figure did seem to think gubernatorial focus was relevant to the state’s economic focus, however.

George Berry, who served as commissioner of the Department of Industry, Trade & Tourism (now Economic Development) under Governor Joe Frank Harris during the 1980s, put a bright spotlight on PCI in a guest column for Georgia Trend magazine in January 2011. Governor Sonny Perdue, the state’s first GOP governor in a century, was leaving office and his successor, Republican Nathan Deal, was about to begin his first term. 

In that piece, Berry wrote:

“As Gov. Nathan Deal begins his administration, he would do well to consider the over-arching accomplishment that defines Georgia’s advancement over the last half century: the progress we have made toward economic parity with the rest of the nation.

“That progress can be best defined by comparing the per capita income of Georgians to that of citizens of other states.

“For decades Georgians lagged in this elemental measure.  As late as the onset of World War II, we were barely at 60 percent of the national average per capita income.  This is not an abstract but rather an intensely personal statistic.  It measures how much education one can afford, how much healthcare one receives, whether one can take his children to a dentist and even how many culturally enriching experiences one can have.”

Berry concluded his column with this: “If our new governor can improve this vital statistic, he will be assured of a successful administration.  Because it is a measure easily calculated, everyone can keep score.  It is in all of our best interests that Gov. Deal be the one to celebrate that day when Georgia finally achieves 100 percent of the national average per capita income.”

(I wrote about Berry in this post nearly a year ago, and I’ll have more to say about his focus on PCI in another of these brain dumps.)

As things worked out, Georgia’s PCI performance under Deal was basically flat.  It gained a little ground in 2011, suffered a two-point drop in 2012, and then made slow but steady progress until the end of Deal’s second term in 2018.  At that point, Georgia’s average PCI stood at 86.7 percent of the national average; in Governor Brian Kemp’s first two years in office, that number ticked up ever-so-slightly to 87.0 percent – just under the 87.1 percent figure the state posted at the end of Joe Frank Harris’s first year in office.

Thus endeth Brain Dump No. 1.

Watch this space.

               

Aspen Aerogels, Bulloch County, and Randy Cardoza’s theory of concentric circles

A couple of stories in this morning’s AJC merit a quick post. One is the lead story on page 1 about the state adding a whopping 34,100 jobs in February. The story, by Michael Kanell, said that 84 percent of the new jobs were in Atlanta. By my arithmetic, that’s 28,644 jobs for Atlanta, leaving 5,456 for the rest of the state.

The AJC story didn’t define “Atlanta,” but my best guess is that it refers to the 10-county Atlanta Region Commission (ARC) region. That would mean the 5,456 jobs were divvied up between the remaining 149 counties. There’s no huge story here — just further evidence of the continuing concentrations of jobs and economic muscle in Metro Atlanta (no matter how you define it).

The second and in my view more important story was on the News section front — a report, also by Kanell, about a Massachusetts company, Aspen Aerogels, announcing plans to build a $325 million manufacturing plant in Bulloch County to produce special materials that will, as the story put it, “contain potentially disastrous fires in electric vehicles.”

This story resonated with me because it’s in line with a theory I’ve held for a while now that any effort to revitalize rural Georgia will have to begin not in the most-impoverished counties themselves, but in the smaller cities and larger towns scattered across the state. I’ve written a little about the deterioration of some of those cities and towns and talked about the importance of propping them up in a number of presentations I’ve given over the years.

As it happens, Bulloch County is one of the second-tier counties I’ve long thought might play a strategic role in revitalizing its surrounding areas. Located just inland from Savannah and the Georgia coast, it’s one of the few South Georgia counties with an actual economic and population-growth pulse.

Further, it’s home to Georgia Southern University and Ogeechee Technical College, and it has decent educational attainment numbers: 27 percent of its adults hold college degrees and another 33 percent have either technical degrees or some college education, which should make for a solid talent pool for the 250 people Aspen Aerogels plans to hire.

As it also happens, Bulloch County (Statesboro, actually) came up in a conversation I had several days ago with Randy Cardoza, who served as the state’s chief economic development official under three governors. Cardoza headed the Georgia Department of Industry, Trade & Tourism (now Economic Development) under Governors Joe Frank Harris, Zell Miller and Roy Barnes.

Cardoza and I were talking about strategies for pulling the worst-off of Georgia’s counties out of what appear to be economic and population death spirals, and I’m just going to give him the floor here (based on my notes).

“I don’t think there’s enough money at the state … to make any real difference in some of these communities. The only thing I’ve ever been able to rationalize is that you take some group of learned individuals, take the state map and look at it and say, okay, we’ve got the major cities, and those are fine.

“Then we’ve got the Statesboros of the world, the Dublins, that are big enough and have enough infrastructure to survive, and they are surviving, and then you look at all the counties that surround them, that really don’t have anything, and then you get them all together and say if we do more to help Statesboro, then that’s going to benefit Emanuel County and Treutlen and the counties around them, and you build concentric circles around the larger counties and you get the counties around them to understand that (they can benefit) if they participate.

“Instead of everybody having their own little economic development organization … and their own little budget that isn’t hardly big enough to drive to Atlanta to tell anybody what they have or to develop a site, that they set up a special (multi-county) taxing district, find a good piece of land and run utilities. We’re going to make sure the roads are in place, and then the labor will come from those counties plus the others on the other side of them, and then after a while, those circles start overlapping, and you do it to enough different places and there are no areas left out.

“They may not have it in their county, but they’re within a 30-minute drive. They can go to work and they can drive home at night and live on the family farm … and pretty soon those circles will overlap all over the state and we won’t have any bare areas anymore. It’ll take some time, but I don’t know any other way to do it.”

Bulloch County and Aspen Aerogels may provide a good test of the Cardoza theory. Here’s hoping it works.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022

KFF’s national analysis matches TIGC’s Georgia findings on the Red-Blue Covid-19 divide

Research spotlighting the differences in how Red and Blue America are responding to virtually every aspect of Covid-19 continues to pile up: the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) went up yesterday with a report declaring that its polling had found “that political partisanship is a stronger national predictor of vaccination than other demographic factors.”

I haven’t attempted to do an analysis that looks at the full spectrum of demographic factors — race, gender, age, etc. — but I certainly don’t doubt KFF’s findings. Its national polling and findings are very much in line with what TIGF has been watching take shape here in Georgia for well over a year, although there are a couple of minor differences.

KFF reports that, nationally, the vaccination gap between counties that voted for Democrat Joe Biden over Republican Donald Trump has widened slightly from about 12 percent toward the end of last year to 13.2 percent as of January 11th. Nationally, KFF found, the Biden counties were 65 percent vaccinated as of that date versus 52 percent for the Trump counties.

Here in Georgia, as of data published yesterday (January 19th) by the state Department of Public Health (DPH), the split was right at 10 points — 51.9 percent in the Biden counties to 42.0 percent in the Trump counties — and that’s about what it’s been for the past few months.

In terms of raw numbers, however, the Biden counties continue to grow their advantage of vaccinated and virus-resistant residents. As of yesterday, the Biden counties had fully vaccinated just shy of 875,000 more people than the Trump counties — 2.97 million to 2.09 million. Lately the gap has been widening by an average of just over 850 people a day. If that pace continues, the difference will hit one million in mid-June.

Another difference involves booster shots. KFF found that nationally “the share of fully vaccinated individuals who have received a booster dose is the same (37%)” in the Biden and Trump counties. Here in Georgia, the Biden counties are doing better in this category as well: 40 percent of the fully-vaxxed residents of the Biden counties have gotten boosters versus 37.4 percent in the Trump counties.

As regular readers of TIGF know, I’ve been watching a broad range of Covid data through a political prism for more than a year now (see stories here, here, and most recently here). The obvious question is whether the differences between Red and Blue Georgia in vaccination and death rates — which increasingly favor Blue Georgia — will be sufficient to have an impact on this fall’s election outcomes.

Watch this space.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022

TIGC takes an early look at the Georgia GOP’s gubernatorial death cage match

Ordinarily the Georgia General Assembly is a shoo-in for top honors in the Best Free Show in Town competition. This year it’ll have stiff competition from the Republican-on-Republican death cage match between incumbent GOP Governor Brian Kemp and former President Donald J. Trump’s handpicked lapdog, ex-U.S. Senator David Perdue.

I wouldn’t place a bet on this race right now if my life depended on it, but I would wager that it’ll bring the schism between Republicans in blood-red rural Georgia and Metro Atlanta’s purplish suburbs and exurbs into sharper focus than ever before.

Picture the Georgia GOP as Humpty Dumpty. The one thing we know for sure is that the Kemp-Perdue match will pull him off the wall and bust him into at least two big pieces. The question is whether either candidate can put him back together.

The differences in these two wings of the party are profound. Rural Georgia Republicans are among the poorest and least well-educated voters on the planet. Their suburban and exurban GOP cousins are pretty much the exact opposite: highly-educated, economically productive, and very affluent. It was among this latter group that Trump arguably lost Georgia in the 2020 presidential race.

Trying to parse those voting blocs right now strikes me as an exercise in futility. My first impulse would be to give Perdue the edge, thanks almost entirely to the Trump endorsement. It was, after all, a Trump endorsement in 2018 that doomed former Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle’s then-frontrunning gubernatorial bid and all but handed the Republican nomination to Kemp. How can Kemp expect to do without that Trumpian support the second time around?

That line of thinking might hold true in rural Georgia, but the ‘burbs are different. I write this without the benefit of any polling data, but I have to wonder if the stink of Trump still clings to Perdue in those climes — and whether Kemp might have the advantage there. I am no Kemp fan, but I think a fair assessment of his first term has to be that it hasn’t been a total disaster (hey, my expectations are pretty low). He’s chalked up some impressive economic development wins and has somehow managed to avoid embarrassing the state on any kind of regular basis.

Okay, okay, he signed S.B. 202 surrounded by a group of mostly over-fed old white guys while sitting under a painting of a former slave plantation, but — let’s face it — that won’t hurt him with most Republicans. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him use it in a campaign ad — especially in the aforementioned rural regions of the state.

*****

One presumed advantage for Kemp is that he’s built up a $12 million campaign war chest. I say “presumed” because recent history tells us a fat bank account is no guarantee of political success in Georgia (See Barnes, Roy, 2002). On top of that, he’s now apparently sitting on a multi-billion dollar state surplus and wants to spend about $1.6 billion in “tax refunds” to all Georgians.

It’s unclear whether he’ll have to report those refunds as campaign expenditures, but, frankly, it’s also unclear whether they’ll do him much political good. Trump’s name was printed on hundreds of billions of dollars in Covid stimulus checks issued in the spring of 2020 — and he promptly went on to lose re-election a few months later.

His successor, Joe Biden, seems to have fared little better with his own stimulus checks (although he did not have his name printed on the checks); based on recent polling data, it’s far from clear that his stimulus program did him much political good.

If the Trump and Biden experience is any guide, Kemp’s taxpayer refunds will be largely forgotten within a few weeks after the checks go out.

For what it’s worth, I think Kemp missed a Nixon-to-China moment. With a few billion spare bucks lying around, why not put it to strategic use and plow it into hardwiring rural Georgia for broadband internet service? Broadband has, after all, been held out by many Republicans as key to rural Georgia’s salvation, and that kind of initiative would have created hundreds if not thousands of jobs and helped build a foundation for economic development in the parts of the state that need it the most.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022

Another blogger weighs in on Covid’s political impact

In my last post, I wondered aloud if Covid would kill so many more Republicans than Democrats that it might actually influence Georgia’s election results this fall. Since then, a couple of things have happened.

One is that I’ve gotten a couple of pretty thoughtful notes suggesting my projected body count was low. As a result I’ve been fiddling around with various chunks of data to see if I could come up with a credible way of fleshing out my last estimate.

The second thing that happened is that I got scooped.

Yesterday, Donald G. McNeil, Jr., a former New York Times health and science writer who now blogs about the pandemic, went up with a terrific post that basically did what I was working toward.

McNeil’s whole piece is well worth reading, but here are just a few of the money grafs:

“As of this week, about 1,800 Americans a day are dying of Covid; the C.D.C. expects that number to rise above 2,600.

“Virtually all are adults. If 95 percent were unvaccinated and we assume that 75 percent of those were Trump supporters, that’s 1,300 to 1,900 of his voters being subtracted from the rolls every single day.

Donald Trump lost Arizona by a mere 10,000 votes. He lost Georgia by 12,000, He lost Wisconsin by 21,000. He lost Nevada by 33,000.

Right now, about 60 Arizonans, 36 Georgians, 34 Wisconsinites and 14 Nevadans are dying of Covid each day. Seventy five percent of 95 percent of that would be minus 103 Trump voters per day — just in those four swing states. Week after week. That adds up.”

Obviously, these kinds of projections can get to be a little dicey. There are a lot of moving parts and the data is obviously very fluid. But your humble scribe here at TIGC would wager that data-crunchers and strategists in Democratic and GOP campaigns alike are paying attention to it. It’s going to be a significant part of this fall’s political story.

Stay tuned.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022

TIGC tackles the big political question of 2022

This is the time of year when most journalists look back at the previous year and recap its major stories. Here at Trouble in God’s Country, I’ve decided to look to the future and take on the major question that will probably hang over Georgia politics for most of the rest of the year.

Specifically: Will Covid kill so many more Republicans than Democrats that it might actually influence the election results in November?

I know, I know. You’re thinking it’s impossible to know whether Covid victims voted red or blue. You’re probably also thinking the question is rude, insensitive and in poor taste. You may be right on both counts. But bear with me.

I took a first pass at this question back in September. At the time, I was looking at the laissez-faire approach Governor Brian Kemp was taking on Covid and linking that to the differing death and vaccination rates that were already taking shape between the state’s red and blue counties.

My thinking then was that the numbers were interesting but that the possibility that they might actually impact future election results was a little far-fetched.

Now, I think I can report that the possibility is a good bit less far-fetched.

First, one data point I used in that initial report probably understated the difference in the Covid death rates in red and blue Georgia. Back then — on September 10th — the Georgia Department of Public Health’s daily Covid report revealed that the Trump counties had suffered 10,545 deaths from the virus versus 9,468 for the Biden counties.

In that analysis, however, I ignored one column in the Georgia Department of Public Health’s daily reports: “Probable Deaths.” I did that in the interest of being cautious and conservative in the way I analyzed the data. I’ve since decided that was unnecessary and, frankly, wrong. Whatever the final cause of death is ruled to be, those “probable” Covid victims are still dead and, presumably, won’t be able to vote.

Add those “probables” to the tally and the body count in the GOP counties jumped, as of last September 10th, to 12,597 versus 10,361 for the 30 Democratic counties — a difference of 2,236. More interesting, I thought, but probably still not a big enough number to get worked up about.

So, what’s happened since then? Well, as of December 31st, the total Covid death toll in the Trump counties — for confirmed and probable deaths — was 17,119 versus 13,157 in the Biden counties, a difference of 3,962.

The bottom line arithmetic on this is that, for the 112 days between September 10th and the end of the year, the Republican counties, on average, lost an average of just over 40 people (virtually all of them voting age) to Covid versus just under 25 people in the Biden counties — a difference of 15.4 deaths per day.

Extrapolating from December 31st until the November 8th General Election would obviously be a risky exercise, but if — big if, I know — the current trend holds, the gap between the Republican and Democratic counties would swell to more than 8,700.

In a state where former President Trump got himself tape-recorded pleading with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes” so he could reverse Biden’s Georgia victory, that’s probably a big enough number to merit a little attention.

And, yes, I know: I may be on shaky ground in suggesting that the geographic differences are a proxy for the political split. But at this point there’s enough data available that I’m comfortable doing just that: I’d wager the law of large numbers is kicking in and that, overall, the geographic and political splits are pretty close.

I’d bet that’s especially true once we factor in the vaccination differences. As of September 10th, the Democratic counties had already given two Covid shots to nearly 800,000 more of their residents than had the GOP counties. As of the end of the year, the vaccination advantage in the Biden counties had grown by another 60,000.

This picture comes into much sharper focus when you look at political universes that are overwhelmingly red or blue. Twenty-five largely rural or exurban counties gave Trump at least 80 percent of their 2020 vote; collectively they hit 83.6 percent for the incumbent president. As a point of comparison, urban DeKalb County gave Biden 84.1 percent of its vote.

This table summarizes the key data points.

With a much smaller population, the 25 Trump counties had nonetheless posted 1,129 more Covid deaths than DeKalb County at year’s end; indeed, the collective Covid death rate for those counties is substantially worse than Mississippi’s, which is currently the worst in the nation.

DeKalb, meanwhile, had fully vaccinated 52.6 percent of its population and gotten boosters in the arms of 19 percent. The 25 Trump counties lag badly in both categories.

Will these trends really ripple into Georgia’s political waters and influence the electoral tides this fall? We won’t know until the night of November 8th, but I think the numbers have gotten big enough that they’re worth watching.

And I’ll add this: If the former president has to come back to Georgia this winter in search of more supposedly missing votes, I’ll have a suggestion about where he should look. I’ll also offer one other piece of advice: bring shovels.

GSU Urban Studies Institute urban-rural symposium now available online

Back in November, Georgia State University’s Urban Studies Institute sponsored a day-long symposium on the state’s widening urban-rural divide, and the video is now available online here. Yours truly was the lead-off speaker, but don’t let that scare you off. There were a number of good presentations and a lot of useful information shared.

Georgia’s 40-year PCI rollercoaster ride

In the final 20 years of the last century, Georgia made remarkable economic progress on at least one front: the state’s per capita income (PCI) gained more than 10 percentage points against the national average and came within five points of that important benchmark. In the process, the state’s PCI rank among the 50 states and the District of Columbia climbed from a low of 41st to a high of 25th.

In the first two decades of this century, however, Georgia has surrendered nearly all those gains and fallen back into the nation’s bottom ranks for per capita income. Its 2020 rank was 37th. Only three states gained more ground against the national PCI average than Georgia between 1980 and 2000, and only four lost more ground between 2000 and 2020.

In the process, hundreds of thousands of Georgians were first lifted out of the bottom national quartile for per capita income but have since fallen back into it. As TIGC reported in its last post, Georgia finished 2020 with more of its citizens living in bottom-quartile PCI counties than any other state in the union, including states like Texas and Florida with significantly larger populations.

While that last post focused exclusively on new 2020 data released in November by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), this one takes a deeper look at a half-century’s worth of PCI data with an eye toward trying to answer a question we posed in the last post: Why is such a large portion of Georgians apparently stuck at the bottom of the nation’s income ladder?

The answer to that question remains elusive, but the lookback at the last 50 years reveals that Georgia has been on a PCI rollercoaster that is all but unique among the 50 states and D.C. Through the 1970s, Georgia’s PCI ranking was basically flat at between 38th and 40th place among the 50 states and D.C. But from 1983 through the end of the century, the state’s ranking climbed steadily, if unevenly, to a peak of 25th place in 1999 before plateauing at 26th place for the next three years. Since then, Georgia has dropped precipitously in the national PCI rankings. It bottomed out at 40th and 41st from 2008 through 2015 before rebounding to 37th by the end of 2020.

These are among the major findings and observations from an ongoing TIGC review of 50 years of personal income data produced by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA).

And while identifying the exact causes of the state’s rollercoaster ride will require further research, it’s difficult to ignore the overlap between the rise and fall of the state’s PCI fortunes with the transition in the state’s political leadership: all the gains occurred under Democratic governors and all the losses followed under Republicans.

The most dramatic progress came under Governor Joe Frank Harris, who served from 1983 through 1990. During that period, Georgia moved up in the PCI rankings from 37th to 30th. The progress continued under Governor Zell Miller, who succeeded Harris and served the next eight years. After plateauing at 30th or 31st for three years, the state resumed its climb and reached 26th place by the time Miller left office at the end of 1998. Under Governor Roy Barnes, the state’s last Democratic governor, the state’s PCI ranking peaked at 25th in 1999 and then plateaued at 26th for the final three years of his one term in office.

Barnes lost his 2002 reelection bid to Sonny Perdue, who took office in January 2003 as the state’s first Republican governor in modern times and went on to handily win reelection in 2006. By the time he left office in 2010, Georgia’s national PCI ranking had plunged 15 spots to 41st, tying an all-time low for the last half-century.

Under Nathan Deal, Perdue’s successor and the state’s second GOP governor in more than a century, the state’s national PCI ranking floated along at 41st and 40th for the first five years of Deal’s two terms before rebounding slightly to 38th by the time he left office. Now two years into the term of the state’s third Republican leader in modern times, Governor Brian Kemp, the state stands 37th in the nation’s PCI ranking — the same ranking it had when Governor Harris took office.

Whether the various governors deserved all the credit or blame for the ups and downs in the PCI rankings is a matter for debate, but it seems a fair question. Were there changes in economic development, education or other policies and practices that drove the rankings and, more importantly, the personal fortunes of Georgians impacted by the 40-year seesaw effect? Or was it all just a huge coincidence?

As part of this analysis, I have used the BEA data to rank all the counties in the country by per capita income, sort them into national quartiles, and then pull the 159 Georgia counties out of the national list. As a result, I can determine how many Georgia counties — and Georgians — lived in each quartile in any given year. So far, I’ve done this part of the analysis for each year preceding a gubernatorial transition.

At the end of 1982, just before Harris took office, some 21.8 percent of the state’s 5.65 million residents — about 1.23 million people — lived in 91 counties in the bottom quartile of the nation’s PCI rankings. By the time Barnes left office in 20 years later, those numbers were down dramatically: less than 10 percent of the state’s 8.51 million citizens — fewer than 830,000 people — lived in 53 counties in that bottom national quartile.

When Perdue left office in 2010, the percentage of Georgians living in bottom quartile counties had exploded to more than 30.3 percent of the state’s estimated population of 9.7 million people — some 2.9 million people in 104 counties. At the end of 2020, the picture was no better: more than 3.05 million Georgians were living in 104 bottom quartile counties — the most of any state in the country, as TIGC reported in its last post.

To be clear, Georgia’s PCI has continued to rise throughout this period, but for the past 18 years it has lost ground against the national average. When Barnes left office at the end of 2002, the state’s average PCI of $30,133 was 94.6 percent of the national average of $31,859. When Perdue left office eight years later, the state’s average PCI stood at $34,830, but that was only 85.6 percent of the national average for 2002: $40,690.

The two graphs below should help tell this story. The first one illustrates the rise and fall of Georgia’s per capita income as a percentage of the national average. The straight blue line across the upper part of the graph represents the national average across the 40-year timescale. The orange line below it illustrates the rise and fall of Georgia’s per capita income as a percentage of that national average.

This second graph shows how Georgia’s actual per capita income tracks against the national average over the past 40 years. The gap narrowed, sometimes unevenly, through the 1980s and ’90s before beginning to widen at the turn of the century.

This is the second of at least three posts I’m developing based on the BEA’s latest economic data. In the next one, I’ll return to my usual focus on the state’s urban-rural divide, including trends in the different regions of the state.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2021

Rural Georgia leads race to the bottom in per capita income. The question is, why?

The week before Thanksgiving, I served as the lead-off speaker for a day-long symposium, sponsored by Georgia State University’s Urban Studies Institute, on Georgia’s urban-rural divide. About an hour before I started my presentation, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) put out its annual report on county-level per capita income. It’s a shame I couldn’t have gotten an advance look at the data; it would have provided a great addition to my presentation.

I’ve now spent two or three days rolling around in the data and can already see that I’ll be able to milk several solid posts out of the BEA spreadsheet. For starters, though, I’ll focus on Georgia’s at least mildly surprising showing at the bottom of the nation’s per capita income pile.

One useful thing about the BEA report is that it includes data on more than 3,100 counties and comparable governmental jurisdictions. That makes it possible to compare Georgia to its neighbors and, indeed, the entire country. It also makes it possible to document the extent of the divide between Georgia’s haves and have-nots.

The first unhappy headline out of this data dive is that Georgia counties occupy the bottom two places on the national list. Wheeler County finished 3,114th out of 3,114 counties with a 2020 PCI of $21,087, just behind Telfair County at 3,113th with a PCI of $22,644. As a frame of reference, those figures are less than one-fourth of Fulton County’s state-leading per capita income of $95,683 and about one-tenth the PCI of $220,645 in Teton County, Wyoming, which ranks No. 1 nationally.

Perhaps even more troubling, Georgia is home to 10 of the bottom 30 counties nationally. The only other states with more than two counties in the bottom 30 are Florida with six and South Dakota with four. Because Georgia has so many more counties than most states, it might be possible to argue that the number of counties on any such list isn’t all that important. So, let’s look at population.

Of the 10 states with counties in the Bottom 30, Georgia had a larger share of its population living in those counties than any other state except South Dakota, whose four counties in the Bottom 30 were made up largely or entirely of impoverished Indian reservations. As the table at right shows, some 1.2 percent of Georgia’s overall population resides in a Bottom 30 county; except for South Dakota, all the other states’ Bottom 30 populations were below one-half of one percent.

Still untroubled? Okay, let’s broaden the focus.

As I’ve already suggested, the BEA data allows you to sort and rank all 3,114 counties (and comparable jurisdictions) nationally. Having done that, I’ve also sliced the nation, and the state, into quartiles. Of Georgia’s 159 counties, 104 counties posted 2020 PCIs in the bottom national quartile.

Those 104 counties are home to 28.5 percent of Georgia’s 10.7 million residents — a higher percentage of people living in the bottom quartile than any of its adjoining states except Alabama, where the number is 29.6 percent. This table shows the total populations and quartile splits for Georgia and all its contiguous neighbors.

I’ll have more to say about this in a subsequent post, but one initial takeaway (in my view) is that it’s pretty good illustration of the extent of the chasm between Georgia’s haves and have-nots.

To widen the lens even further, Georgia has more people living in the bottom quartile than any other state in the nation, including Texas, Florida and all the other states with larger populations. Some 3.05 million Georgians live in the bottom PCI quartile.

Texas, with nearly three times Georgia’s population, has only 2.75 million residents living in the bottom quartile. In Florida, which has double Georgia’s population, the number of residents in the bottom quartile is 2.01 million. North Carolina, with essentially the same population as Georgia, has nearly 1.3 million fewer people in its bottom tier counties.

Of the 779 counties in TIGC’s bottom quartile, 104 are in Georgia; only four other states — Arkansas (54 counties), Kentucky (65), Mississippi (55) and Missouri (54) — had more than 50 counties in the bottom quartile.

That rural Georgia’s 2020 per capita income is so low is not in and of itself all that surprising. But that the state performs so much worse than neighboring states like Florida and North Carolina is frankly more than a little disconcerting and a bit of a mystery. How those states have been able to do a better job of moving their populations out of the bottom PCI tier and up the economic ladder is a question that needs to be answered.

Watch this space.

The interactive map below highlights Georgia’s 159 counties based on their National PCI Quartile. The lighter the shade, the higher the quartile.

The interactive table below shows 2020 per capita income data for all 159 Georgia counties, along with their state and national rank and the national quartile into which each county falls.

Gauging the gap in educational attainment in Georgia’s urban-rural divide

This post is the second in a series I’m developing as I rework my TIGC presentation for a mid-November symposium on Georgia’s urban-rural divide. In the first of this series, I took a look at the widening gap in premature death rates between Metro Atlanta and Georgia’s Other 147 Counties. Today’s topic is educational attainment.

I’ve covered some of this before but I don’t feel like I’ve ever stitched together the whole story, which I’ve come to view as the single most important driver in the division between my TIGC 12-county Metro Atlanta region and the Other 147 Counties.

I’ll start with this graph, which I’ve just developed.

What this shows is the number of college graduates by region over the last half-century, as documented by the U.S. Census Bureau and compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS).

The first takeaway from this data is that the Metro Atlanta/Other 147 divide is a relatively recent development. In 1970, according to the Census data, there were fewer than a quarter of a million college graduates in the entire state, and slightly more than half of them lived outside today’s Metro Atlanta region (much of which was also rural back then).

That balance had tipped in favor of my TIGC 12-county Metro Atlanta region by 1980, but just barely. It was only as the state moved into the 1980s that the gap in the number of college graduates really began to widen. Based on the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) data for the five-year period 2015-2019, more than 63 percent of the state’s nearly 2.2 million college graduates reside in the 12 Metro Atlanta counties.

While I regard the educational attainment data as the most important metric in this area, the truth is it’s a lagging indicator — and there’s a leading indicator that forecasts even more bad news. Over time, I’ve stitched together 14 years of fall enrollment data from the University System of Georgia (USG). It’s reflected in this graph.

What this shows is that for the first four years of my study period, the Other 147 Counties were still sending more freshmen to USG colleges than the 12 Metro Atlanta counties. Look at the orange line and you’ll see that the Other 147 Counties peaked in 2009 when they sent a little more than 23,000 freshmen to USG institutions and then started a pretty dramatic six-year slide.

This is arguably the most significant of the Great Recession “aftershocks” I’ve written about in other pieces. Metro Atlanta continued to send growing numbers of freshmen to USG institutions for another two years before being hit by a comparable aftershock and suffering a two-year tumble before beginning to recover.

As the chart shows, Metro Atlanta continued to send more freshmen to USG institutions for the remainder of the current decade. One takeaway from the data is that — between 2006 and 2020 — the Other 147 Counties went from sending just over 15 percent more freshman to USG colleges and universities than Metro Atlanta to sending nearly 16 percent fewer — a swing of more than 30 points in 14 years.

But there’s a hint of good news at the end of the decade. After an odd, statewide downturn in freshman enrollment in 2019, both Metro Atlanta and the Other 147 Counties posted large and highly comparable increases in the fall of 2020. The Other 147 Counties may not have gained any ground on Metro Atlanta, but at least they didn’t lose any more.

Overall, the 12 Metro Atlanta counties sent about 54 percent of the total Fall 2020 in-state enrollees to the University System’s 28 institutions.

But the picture is much starker when you look at the four major research universities — Augusta University, Georgia State University, Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia. At those four institutions combined, just over 70 percent of the Fall 2020 in-state enrollees came from the 12 Metro Atlanta counties.

At Georgia Tech, the percentage of Fall 2020 enrollees from Metro Atlanta hit 74 percent, and the 83 counties highlighted on the map at right didn’t send a single freshman to Tech that year. At the University of Georgia in Athens, the percentage of Fall 2020 in-state enrollees from Metro Atlanta topped 62 percent, and it pulled students from more of the state; only 20 counties failed to send a single freshman to UGA that Fall.

That this concentration of educational muscle in Metro Atlanta holds economic implications for the entire state should be obvious. But it also foreshadows major cultural and political shifts, which I’ll get into in a future post.

(c) Trouble in God’s Country 2021