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Three-fourths of Georgia’s GDP now produced north of the gnat line

About three months ago I stumbled onto a December 2018 report from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) that included four years of newly developed county-level gross domestic product (GDP) data.  BEA billed that new set of data as a prototype and announced it would be coming out with an expanded report in December 2019.

That happened today.  This morning, BEA put out 18 years of county-level GDP data for most of the counties in the nation, including all 159 in Georgia, along with an update of its long-standing Total Personal Income and Per Capita Income reports.  So far, in sifting through the data, I haven’t turned up any real blockbuster news, but it does contain a number of interesting nuggets that are worth reporting.

Including:

  • As of 2018, fully three-fourths of the state’s gross domestic product was being generated north of the gnat line. My Trouble in God’s Country 12-county Metro Atlanta region and 41-county North Georgia region accounted for $396.9 billion of the state’s $529.1 billion GDP – or 75.01 percent.  This isn’t a huge surprise, but it is a first, and it represents the high point so far in a steady trend that developed several years ago as the state was clawing its way out of the Great Recession.
  • That divide would probably be even bigger except for the fact that Metro Atlanta got hammered worse than the rest of the state by the Great Recession. I’ve seen that pattern in other economic data – including Internal Tax Revenue data – and this new GDP data simply confirms it.  In 2008, Georgia’s total GDP fell $9.69 billion; of that, $8.26 billion – just over 85 percent of the total loss – came out of Metro Atlanta’s hide.  In 2009, the state’s overall GDP contraction was even bigger – another $17 billion – but the damage was a little more evenly spread; Metro Atlanta’s $11.5 billion loss represented only 67.6 percent of the state’s overall contraction for that year.
  • What’s more, most of the rest of the state initially recovered more quickly from the Great Recession than did Metro Atlanta. In 2010, every region except South Georgia showed a little improvement over 2009 – and South Georgia was basically flat.  Indeed, by 2010 Coastal Georgia and Middle Georgia were back to their 2007 pre-Great Recession levels.  It took Metro Atlanta until 2013 to match its 2007 GDP level.  TIGC’s 41-county North Georgia region took another two years – until 2015 – to get all the way back to pre-recession levels.  South Georgia’s recovery has lagged the other regions.  While its initial hit was relatively modest – down to $34.9 billion in 2008 from $35.7 billion in 2007 – its GDP has bobbed up and down slightly for a full decade, and it didn’t top its 2007 GDP level until 2018.
  • While the Metro Atlanta and North Georgia post-recession recoveries were a little slow getting started, their growth has accelerated over the past five years and easily outpaced the rest of the state. From 2014 through 2018, Metro Atlanta’s GDP grew by 22 percent while North Georgia’s expanded by 15.3 percent.  Coastal Georgia’s GDP grew by a relatively healthy 12.2 percent, but both Middle Georgia and South Georgia were stuck in single-digits – 7.5 percent and 6.1 percent, respectively.  Over that five-year period, the state’s GDP grew by a total of $78.3 billion.  Of that, $68.4 billion – or 87.4 percent – was north of the gnat line.

This table summarizes GDP by TIGC region for selected years and shows both the dollar growth and the percent growth for the most recent five-year period.

Regional GDP Chart

One way of highlighting the widening divide between North and South (and between Metro Atlanta and the rest of the state) is to revisit my comparison from three years ago of all 56 counties in interior South Georgia to Gwinnett County alone (see map).  South Georgia vs Gwinnett County

When I wrote that piece, I found that Gwinnett County, with roughly three-fourths the population of South Georgia, was outperforming South Georgia on every metric I could find – taxes paid, educational achievement, population health, etc.  At the time, the county-level GDP data wasn’t available.

Now that it is, it offers a fascinating addendum to my original comparison – and the data suggest that the Gwinnett-South Georgia gap is getting wider yet.  Going all the way back to 2001, Gwinnett County and South Georgia had very comparable GDPs; South Georgia’s was actually a little bigger — $32.5 billion to $30.8 billion.  As the graph below indicates, South Georgia and Gwinnett County remained at rough parity for about a decade, straight through the Great Recession and its immediate aftermath.

South Ga vs Gwinnett County GDP

But, like Metro Atlanta overall, as Gwinnett County began to recover, it did so at an accelerating pace and has widened its gap with South Georgia.  As of 2018, Gwinnett County’s GDP was nearly $44.2 billion versus just under $36 billion for all of South Georgia.  In the last five years, Gwinnett County’s GDP growth was more than three times that of South Georgia’s.

Another picture to be teased out of the GDP data has to do with county-specific growth rates, and I plan to follow up shortly with a post about that.  But here’s a teaser: Thirty-nine counties had smaller GDPs in 2018 than they did in 2001.  Perhaps predictably, the vast majority were small rural counties, but two were significant regional hub counties: Bibb (Macon) and Floyd (Rome).

Watch this space.

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