For a while now, I’ve been noodling on a piece comparing Georgia and North Carolina. The two states are obviously neighbors and have a lot in common. Their economies are similar. Their populations are about as close to identical as you can get (10.7 million for Georgia vs. 10.6 million for North Carolina). They both also have highly regarded systems of higher education (in one long-running dispute, each claims to have the nation’s oldest public university). And each one lays claim to recognition as the nation’s best state for business (Georgia from Area Development magazine, North Carolina from CNBC).
But they also have their differences. Georgia excels at college football while North Carolina dominates in basketball. Coca-Cola was invented in Georgia, Pepsi in North Carolina. North Carolina has two distinct styles of barbecue while Georgia has, well, more — about as many as it has barbecue joints.
But their biggest important difference — and the reason I’d been thinking about working up a Georgia-North Carolina comparison — has to do with the way the two states have evolved over time. I’m referring of course to the fact that Georgia has one huge and sprawling population and business center in Atlanta while North Carolina has a half-dozen or so smaller but still major metropolitan areas with substantial populations and vibrant business communities: Charlotte, Raleigh, Asheville, Winston-Salem, and Durham-Chapel Hill, among others.
I had, however, been dragging my feet on tackling this project. I had a lot of other stuff going on and, frankly, couldn’t figure out where to start. But then I got into my per capita income (PCI) research and noticed, to my surprise, that there were more than twice as many Georgians as North Carolinians stuck in the bottom national quartile for per capita income.
How could that be, I wondered. What has caused it? Has it always been that way? And most of all, was this difference important?
The only one of those questions I can answer right now is the third one. Going back to 1970, Georgia has always had a higher percentage of its residents living in bottom national PCI quartile counties. But up until the turn of the century, the differences — and the raw numbers — were pretty small.
In 1970, 20.9 percent of Georgians and 16.3 percent of North Carolinians lived in bottom-quartile counties. The bigger difference could be found in the top three quartiles: Georgia had a significantly higher percentage of its population in the top quartile while North Carolina was fatter through the middle ranks, as this column chart to the right illustrates. This rough pattern held for most of the remainder of the last century: Georgia with more of its population in the top and bottom quartiles while North Carolina’s had more of its population in the second and third ranks.
(Quick note on sources: all the data in this piece comes from a big database produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS) that pulls together annual population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau and income data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA).)
The 1990s were good to both states – arguably a little more so to North Carolina. By 2000 (see chart at right), it had matched Georgia in the top rank – each state had exactly 52.5 percent of its population in the top quartile – while they had much smaller portions in bottom rank: 3.8 percent for North Carolina versus 8.8 percent for Georgia. While the spread in the bottom rank had grown a little, the overall numbers were still relatively small. Indeed, in 2000, 10 states had more of their citizens in the bottom quartile than Georgia; Texas, whose population then was just over twice the size of Georgia’s, had more than four times as many people in the bottom quartile: 3.1 million to our 723,983.
But then things began to change. Following 9/11, the first decade of the 21st century was tough on both states – but inarguably more so on Georgia. By 2010, both states had seen significant increases in the share of their populations in the bottom PCI quartile — the result, no doubt, of the impact of both 9/11 and the Great Recession.
North Carolina’s share jumped from 3.8 percent in 2000 to 12.2 percent in 2010. Georgia’s rose by a similar multiple, from 8.8 percent to 30.3 percent, and by now the raw numbers were getting to be big enough that they should have been hard to ignore: 2.94 million Georgians were living in 104 bottom quartile counties versus 1.16 million North Carolinians in 31 of that state’s 100 counties. Also worth noting: North Carolina now had a higher percentage of its population living in top quartile counties. Historically, Georgia’s top quartile population had been the largest of its four groups – and bigger than North Carolina’s.
But not in 2010. Between 2000 and 2010, North Carolina’s top quartile fell from 52.5 percent of its population to 31.7 percent; Georgia’s plunged even further from an identical 52.5 percent in 2000 to 24.4 percent in 2010. The chart at right illustrates the population split for 2010.
This is worth emphasizing. In 2010, there were more Georgians living in bottom national quartile counties than in any of the other quartiles. The largest share of North Carolina’s population, meanwhile, had risen to the top quartile. Another factoid: as of 2010, only Texas – with nearly three times Georgia’s population – had more of its citizens in bottom quartile counties, but not by much: 3.04 million Texans to 2.94 million Georgians.
Ten years later, Georgia had eclipsed even Texas and had more of its citizens living in bottom quartile counties than Texas or any other state. Some 3.45 million Georgians lived in 107 bottom national quartile counties, all but about a dozen contiguous (see 2020 map below).
At the same time, by 2020, Georgia had beefed up its top quartile population by nearly six percentage points while suffering a two-point bump in the bottom quartile; at this point, Georgia’s top and bottom quartile counties (nine urban and suburban counties at the top, 107 mostly rural counties at the bottom) were home to nearly identical populations: just under 3.5 million Georgians each. North Carolina, meanwhile, had seen its top quartile population grow by a less robust 3.5 percentage points, but its bottom quartile population had increased only two-tenths of a point.
Over the course of the last half-century, North Carolina has consistently had a smaller share of its population than Georgia in bottom national quartile counties. It hasn’t always had larger shares of its population in the top quartile, but it has maintained fatter second and third quartile populations. Moreover, economic downturns seem to effect the two states differently. Hit by 9/11 and the Great Recession, both states saw their top quartile populations shrink. But North Carolinians dropping out of the top quartile tended not to fall any further than the second or third quartiles; Georgians were much more likely to fall all the way into the bottom national quartile. In the first decade of this century, North Carolina’s bottom quartile population grew by just under 760,000 people; Georgia’s, by 2.2 million.
The Georgia maps below — from 2000, 2010 and 2020 — put a geographic face on the data outlined above and suggest, in my view, the metastasizing of an economic cancer that now consumes nearly all of rural Georgia, including, as of 2020, an uninterrupted stretch of contiguous counties that runs roughly 330 miles from the Florida line to within one county of the North Carolina border.
I still can’t answer the how and why questions I framed above, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that, yeah, this is important. Figuring this out and doing something about it will be central to fixing the trouble in God’s country.
Stay tuned for Chapters II and III. There’s more to come.
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