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