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Chapter II of the Abrams interview (along with my own thoughts on Medicaid Expansion)

It’s taken me longer than I expected to finish this second write-up from my interview with Stacey Abrams, the Democratic Party’s nominee for governor of Georgia.  There are several reasons for that, but the main one is that I found myself thinking a lot about the consequences of Georgia’s refusal to accept Medicaid Expansion.  That decision is now 10 years old, so it’s ripe for an initial look-back and evaluation.

Before I get into that, though, I should note that Abrams says that implementing Medicaid Expansion would be her top priority as governor and that she believes Georgia’s political landscape has shifted enough over the past decade that even she — black, female, and Democrat — could persuade the Republican-dominated Georgia General Assembly to support the policy.

“The political realities that existed 10 years ago do not exist today,” she said.  “They have shifted in that we now see the direct economic impact.  We see the direct healthcare impact. 

“ … I very firmly believe that both the moral indignity and the economic reality has shifted the political will in the legislature,” she continued.  “But I also know as someone who served there for 11 years that it matters what the governor says she will sign and it matters what priority the governor places on the legislation put before her.”  

It’s probably also worth noting that at least one prominent Republican comes fairly close to publicly agreeing with her, at least about the chances for passage. Brian Robinson, who served as press secretary to Governor Nathan Deal when he rejected Medicaid Expansion 10 years ago, wrote in Georgia Trend a coupole of months ago that Governor Brian Kemp “can steal the issue from (Abrams) by calling a special session to expand Medicaid. It would pass, the governor would experience a net political benefit and Abrams would lose her best talking point.”

If Robinson’s Georgia Trend column was intended to nudge Kemp along and provide him with some political cover, it didn’t work. The Republican incumbent (and successor to Robinson’s former gubernatorial boss) has so far passed up probably the best free political advice he ever got.

This despite the fact that rejecting Medicaid Expansion ranks as arguably the second-worst public policy decision ever made by the leaders of Georgia state government. The worst, of course, was secession – the 1861 decision to leave the Union and go to war with Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and, of course, William Tecumseh Sherman. In rejecting Medicaid Expansion, the state’s Republican leaders didn’t slaughter their way across huge swaths of the state or set fire to entire towns, but the effect has been much the same. Communities have been decimated; people have died.

Medicaid Expansion was built into President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare legislation, known generally as the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and informally as Obamacare.  It would pour billions of dollars into the federal government program set up to provide healthcare to the nation’s poor while imposing minimal cost on the individual states. 

Republicans hated it and fought it every step of the way.  They had initially counted on the conservative U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the whole law (and were pretty much apoplectic when the court failed to do so). But they got something of a consolation prize when the high court ruled that the federal government couldn’t compel states to expand Medicaid; the Supremes held that states should have the right to reject billions of new Medicaid dollars that their own citizens were funding, and Georgia’s Republicans happily did just that.

To his credit, Nathan Deal, Georgia’s Republican governor at the time, initially left the door open to accepting Medicaid Expansion.  But that changed a short time later, when he attended the Republican National Convention in Florida and mysteriously gained new insight into the program’s fatal flaws.  No, no, no, he told reporters, Georgia would not be expanding its Medicaid program.

But even gubernatorial opposition wasn’t enough for Georgia’s GOP-controlled General Assembly.  In 2014, the state legislature passed a law (which Deal signed) stripping the governor of his power to unilaterally accept Medicaid Expansion and decreeing that the legislature would also have to approve it.  This was one more lock on the hospital door.

The early Republican rationale against Medicaid Expansion was that a.) it would cost too much in state funds to kick-start it and b.) the federal government couldn’t be counted on to sustain the level of funding required.  Both those arguments have now been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Even Robinson, the former Deal spokesman, has thrown in the towel on those arguments.  “This isn’t what we would do,” Robinson told Axios recently.  “But Republicans can’t agree on what we would do. This is the policy and the law, and it’s not going away. It would bring home hundreds of millions from a program we’re paying into already.”

The current GOP hedge is to modify the program to somehow better suit Georgia’s particular needs.  Brian Kemp, the incumbent Republican governor against whom Abrams is running, has dragged the state through a waiver process with proposals that would (according to every analysis I’ve been able to find) cost more and do less.

All this would be comical if it weren’t so tragic.  Solid calculations of the amount of money Georgians have paid into the expanded Medicaid fund are hard to come by, but back-of-the-envelope estimates of the amount Governors Deal and Kemp have passed up consistently come in at, give or take, $30 billion-with-a-b.

In the process, 14 Georgia hospitals have closed, eight of them in rural areas – including one in the North Georgia legislative district of House Speaker David Ralston.  A week or so ago, WellStar Atlanta Medical Center, one of Metro Atlanta’s two Level 1 Trauma Centers, announced it would shut down November 1st.  WellStar management took pains to say Medicaid Expansion wouldn’t have made a difference, but that proclamation was met with a certain amount of skepticism. It’s impossible to get a body count, but Georgians have no doubt died because of the refusal to accept Medicaid Expansion.

All of which brings us back, finally, to my interview with Stacey Abrams and her focus on Medicaid Expansion.  I’ll add one more comment.  I’ve now been studying the decline of rural Georgia and the state’s widening urban-rural divide for a solid decade.  A number of drivers are contributing to those unhappy trends, but the judgment I’ve come to is that the biggest single factor is the collapse of rural healthcare. Hospital closures simply signal Stage 4 of the economic cancer afflicting much of rural Georgia.

Abrams sees Medicaid Expansion as vital to improving the health of individual Georgians and the communities they live in. “My intention is to say that Medicaid Expansion is my number one priority,” she said, “because it has the most salutary effect for the largest number of Georgians and it is the single largest economic development opportunity in our state’s history. There is no other economic development issue that will create 60,000 jobs. No one has ever done that.”

Indeed, Kemp’s two biggest economic development wins — a Rivian EV plant east of Atlanta and a Hyundai Motor Group facility in Bryan County — are projected to create a combined total of 15,600 new jobs at a reported cost of $3.3 billion in tax benefits and other incentives.

Abrams applauds those sorts of economic development wins, but with caveats. “My challenge and my critique is that bringing in those jobs is not the end of the story. It is part of the story,” she says, “but too often it becomes the whole of the story — that because you can tout some massive corporation coming in that will absolutely have economic benefit, then you are absolved of responsibility for all of the places that still have nothing.”

Once Georgia’s civil war over Medicaid Expansion is finally over, the reconstruction of rural Georgia will take time and great effort. Hospitals that have been shut down can’t be reopened simply because the federal dollars begin to flow toward their communities. Local hospital authorities and other owners will have to jump through multiple state and federal hoops, a process that is likely to take several years at best.

In the meantime, as the new Medicaid dollars begin to flow, Abrams envisions using some of the shuttered hospitals as sites for clinics that could be staffed by physicians, nurses and physician assistants willing to take a chance on rural Georgia.

” … (N)o one is bringing a company to a place where they can’t see a doctor,” she says, adding elsewhere in the interview that “the infusion of (Medicaid Expansion) cash is going directly to the counties that have the greatest need because what they need are paying customers, and Medicaid expansion means that the customers that are going to show up anyway can finally afford to be there.”

The tragedy is that, for a while at least, there probably won’t be anybody there to pay.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022

Stacey Abrams does an interview with TIGC. It was pretty long. Here’s Chapter One.

A couple of months ago, I began tracking the approach our gubernatorial candidates – incumbent Republican Brian Kemp and Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams – were taking toward rural Georgia and its mounting problems.  I started doing this after reading that Abrams had launched her campaign in Cuthbert, Ga., a tiny town near the Alabama line in southwest Georgia.  My first reaction was that Abrams had somehow gotten lost, but it turns out she did this on purpose.

After that, I scoured the Kemp and Abrams campaign websites for evidence of their approach to rural Georgia and eventually reached out to the Abrams campaign with two requests.  One was to talk with the campaign team members helping to craft her rural policies.  The other was to interview Abrams herself.  Over a period of a few weeks, I had a couple of conversations about rural issues with campaign staff members and volunteers. 

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams speaks outside of closed hospital in Cuthbert, Georgia, Monday, March 14, 2022.

Then last Friday I interviewed Abrams herself, and one thing became quickly apparent: the person crafting Stacey Abrams’s rural policies was Stacey Abrams herself. 

The interview ran just under less than an hour and yielded more material than I could possibly cram into a single post.  In the course of the interview, we covered a range of topics in some depth – education, healthcare, economic development, and the complicated politics facing any Democrat trying to harvest votes in bright red rural Georgia these days.  Over the next few days, I plan to post several posts reporting on Abrams’s views on these subjects.

To open the interview, I threw her a softball.  Talk to me, I said, about how you view the complicated set of problems facing rural Georgia, and about how you would tackle them.  Does state government have the tactical tools it needs to help rural Georgia?  Or do we need a new strategic approach? 

“For me, the goal in rural Georgia is not to become Atlanta, but it is to be able to be self-sustaining and successful within the construct of being small and not having your neighbors live right on top of you.  It is the ability to have the amenities of rural with the modernity of time… “

–stacey abrams

I hereby yield the floor to Ms. Abrams.  Her answers and comments, lightly edited for length, follow.

“We have the tools,” she said, “but they’re jumbled, they are often misused, and they rarely target with the precision necessary to address the challenge…. Rural economic decline is real.  Population decline is real.  There has been insufficient funding of education.  There is a very marked lack of quality healthcare.  There is crumbling and sometimes non-existent infrastructure.  And there has been a lack of economic opportunity that has really focused more on sort of big-game hunting to bring in solutions for targeted counties. 

“But the systemic and I would say sustainable approach has been missing and what is more concerning to me is that the solutions are often premised on leveraging the poverty as opposed to solving the poverty. Meaning, that Georgia often touts economic development coming to the state by saying you don’t have to pay fair wages, that it is the low-income, low-wealth nature of our state that is used as a selling point. Which then means that those who bring jobs do not bring those kinds of jobs that could lift economic capacity, (that) could address those economic challenges…

“For me, the goal in rural Georgia is not to become Atlanta, but it is to be able to be self-sustaining and successful within the construct of being small and not having your neighbors live right on top of you.  It is the ability to have the amenities of rural with the modernity of time, and that’s what’s missing too often in a rural community.  That billions of dollars in tax revenue have been spent on essentially bringing in out-of-state corporations who come to Georgia not simply to create jobs but to create jobs that are not going to lift all of our communities, and that has a concomitant effect of also depressing those who stay and driving out those who might have stayed.

“And so, when I think about how we tackle the challenge of rural Georgia, it is to first acknowledge the repeated failures of recent administrations that have overseen a decline in real wages, a decline in economic capacity, a decline in education, a decline in healthcare, a decline in infrastructure, a decline across the board.  And to not cherry pick the winners.  

“My mission is to focus on reinvestment but also to think about placemaking.  How do we ensure that the nature of our small towns and rural communities are celebrated and that that celebration actually has economic effects? How do we revitalize? And then how do we expand? Because there are some places that have never seen opportunity.  When you go into those communities whether you’re talking about parts of Chattooga County or parts of Randolph County, where the rumor of opportunity has been about in the land for years, but never actually manifested. That’s the kind of work that I want to do (and) why my focus on rural communities is so strong.”

Here I interrupted Abrams and asked her a couple of questions.  One was whether she was suggesting it was wrong to recruit companies like Rivian and Hyundai, both of which have chosen sites in Georgia under Kemp’s watch?  Or Kia, which was recruited to west Georgia under Governor Sonny Perdue more than 15 years ago?

“Well let’s start with that.  No, it’s not a mistake to bring in jobs.  The challenge is, which jobs are you bringing in?  And what are you doing to ensure that those jobs lead to long-term economic lift for everyone?  My challenge and my critique is that bringing in those jobs is not the end of the story. It is part of the story but too often it becomes the whole of the story — that because you can tout some massive corporation coming in that will absolutely have economic benefit, then you are absolved of responsibility for all of the places that still have nothing. 

“And you get a really great headline and real-world, real-time improvement for some. But the long-term impact on others is that nothing happens. That’s deeply problematic or worse than nothing happening. Things actually continue to deteriorate. So, great for Troup County; that is fantastic. And I would never begrudge the success.  But if you’re in Early County, what happened in Troup County is not changing your outcome, and, in fact, it is now, once again, distracting from the very real needs that you have.”

The other question I asked Abrams when I interrupted her was for more of a “nuts-and-bolts” focus on how she would act on her vision for rural Georgia – and how she would pay for it.  Following are two chunks of her response, and we’ll expand on these in the next post.

Chunk One: “So here are the nuts-and-bolts… One is investment.  How do we make investment more effective and efficient? And what are those investment needs?  The major investment needs in Georgia for rural communities are education, Infrastructure, and small business.”

Chunk Two focused on financing those investments, and there’s a lot more to come here.  Basically, Abrams contends that – thanks in part to a huge influx in federal funding and a healthy state budget surplus – Georgia is now in a position to make some unprecedented investments in the present and the future.  She also identifies this as a “fundamental philosophical difference” between her and Kemp.

“Here’s the analogy I use,” she says.  “We’ve got a house (whose) roof has been leaking for years and every time there’s a hard rain, the basement floods.  And so we’re used to going up on the roof, patching the roof, and we go bail out the basement.  We finally have the money to replace the roof and fix the plumbing.  That’s what I want us to do, because if you replace the roof and fix the plumbing, it doesn’t mean the new storms won’t come, but when they come, we’re actually focused on other challenges. We’re not focused on, do we have to find more buckets for the roof?  We’ve actually solved that problem.  Using the surplus to invest in the next twenty years of Georgia opportunity is the smartest way to use this money because it does not require that we borrow from the future to solve the present.  It tells us if we invest in the present, we’re actually better situated for the future.”

We’ll flesh out these chunks – and other topics – in the next post. Watch this space.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022

Stacey Abrams pursues a risky campaign strategy

It’s increasingly clear that Stacey Abrams is pursuing a high-risk – dare I say foolhardy? – strategy in her quest for the office of Georgia governor. 

She’s actually asking voters to think.

What I haven’t been able to decide is whether this was her plan all along?  Or if she backed herself into a corner with her “inelegant” (as she later put it) statement that Georgia is “the worst state” in which to live?

Abrams, the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nominee, was complaining at an event in May about incumbent Republican Governor Brian Kemp’s incessant invocation of an economic development trade publication’s ranking of Georgia as “the top state for doing business” when she flipped that on its head and offered up the “worst state in the country to live” comment.

The statement was widely panned by Kemp and some in the media as a gaffe.  In a Facebook thread, one politically savvy friend bluntly criticized it as “a dumb, unforced error.”  Another, the estimable Bill Cotterell, long ago UPI’s man at the Georgia State Capitol and now a semi-retired political columnist for The Tallahassee Democrat, offered a more complete explanation.  “My kid might be ugly,” he said, “but you’re not going to win my vote by proving it to me.“

Probably not, but Abrams seems determined to give it her best shot – and for what it’s worth, she’s no stranger to novel political strategies.  When she first took on Kemp four years ago, she came closer to winning than any Democrat in the current millennium by running as an unapologetic progressive.  Four years earlier, Jason Carter and Michelle Nunn, progeny of the state’s two leading Democratic families, got clobbered by running GOP lite campaigns for governor and U.S. Senate.

The Kemp camp, meanwhile, has been positively and predictably gleeful in its reactions – but in the process, it may have overreached.  Kemp and his minions delighted in whacking Abrams about the head and shoulders with press statements and tweets. “Stacey Abrams may think differently,” Kemp harrumphed on Twitter, “but I believe Georgia is the best state to live, work, and raise a family.” To have done less would have been political malpractice, a felony in Georgia.

But then they took it a step further and focused their first ad of the campaign on the issue.  The 30-second spot features Abrams making her “inelegant” statement followed by a handful of headlines favorable to Kemp, after which a narrator declares that Kemp has “kept Georgia the best place to live.”

Really?   

Here, we should pause to recognize the difference in campaign strategies.  If Abrams is asking voters to think, Kemp is asking them not to; instead, he wants them to feel

For what it’s worth, his is the more traditional and time-tested approach.  Voters arguably vote their hearts far more than their heads, and appealing to their sense of pride (“best place to live”) no doubt works better in that regard than insulting them (“worst place to live”).

But Kemp’s “best place to live” claim is such an overreach that it merits a TIGC fact-check, and we give it a half-dozen Pinocchios and a pair of flaming tighty-whities.  First, the ad’s messaging logic (for lack of a better word) merits scrutiny (not to mention a belly laugh).  After spotlighting Abrams’s “worst state” comment, the ad features a montage of positive business headlines that are then used as a springboard to the “best place to live” claim.

A strong local economy is obviously critical to a community’s overall viability, but economic development doesn’t automatically lead to quality-of-life improvements and the two don’t always go hand in hand. Further, it seems worth noting that the much-vaunted business ranking from Area Development magazine focuses exclusively on business considerations and does not, as nearly as TIGC has been able to discern, factor in quality-of-life metrics.

Indeed, at least one of the key categories Area Development uses to measure and compare the 50 states seems to be at odds with improving the economic livelihood of individual Georgia citizens. More than 30 years ago, the General Assembly created a job tax credit program that measured the economic standing of Georgia’s counties by three key metrics — unemployment, poverty, and per capita income. Counties that scored poorly by those measures would be targeted with generous tax credits to encourage businesses to set up shop and create jobs in them.

Through the 1980s, ’90s, and early 2000s, Georgia made remarkable progress on arguably the most important of those three — per capita income (as TIGC has documented in previous posts, here, here, and here). Between 1980 and the end of the century, the state’s average PCI rose from 84.5 percent of the national average to 95 percent, and our rank among the 50 states climbed from 38th to 24th.

In the first decade of the current century, Georgia’s PCI performance fell back to 1980 levels; as of 2010, our average PCI was 85.6 percent of the national average and we ranked 40th among the 50 states. That reversal of fortune coincided with the transition of political power at the State Capitol from Democrat to Republican. While it’s difficult to determine cause and effect, the state’s first GOP governor in modern times, Sonny Perdue, presided during his eight years in office over a 15-place drop in the national rankings. Only one state suffered a bigger drop during that same period; Delaware fell 16 places.

Since then, the state’s PCI performance has been relatively static, bobbing up and down slightly first under Governor Nathan Deal and now under Kemp. As of the end of 2020, Kemp’s second year in office, the state’s average PCI was up to 87 percent of the national average but our rank remained 40th among the 50 states.

In Area Development’s view, that’s apparently not a bad thing. Georgia, for instance, tied with Texas for the No. 1 spot in a category called “Competitive Labor Market,” about which the magazine said, in part: “Companies choosing locations in Georgia and Texas appreciate the fact that they both have wages below the average in more than half of all other states … “

That wasn’t true when the Republicans came to power, but it certainly is now — with the ironic consequence that Georgia’s claim to being the No. 1 state for business is predicated in part on the fact that its citizens earn less on average than their counterparts in 39 other states.

Area Development, however, isn’t the only media outlet that ranks states for their overall business environment. CNBC has been doing the same thing since 2007, and Georgia generally fares well in its rankings as well; the state finished in CNBC’s Top 10 every year except 2008 and claimed 1st place in 2014.

CNBC’s methodology has evolved over time, however, and recently it added a category it calls “Life, Health & Inclusion.” Here, the news for Georgia is not so good.

CNBC even published an online sidebar under the headline “These 10 states are America’s worst places to live in 2021.” In this “Life, Health & Inclusion” category, Georgia got an “F” and finished 6th — that is, as the 6th worst place to live in America. Behind Alabama.

Let me repeat that: Behind Alabama.

The challenge for Abrams is in communicating this kind of information in ways that rile voters up without turning them off. If Kemp is trying to make voters feel good about Georgia as a place to live, Abrams should be trying to make them mad. So far, I’m not sure she’s accomplishing that. Most of her critiques (that I’ve seen) have focused on the state as a whole.

She’s up on social media, for example, with an ad that spotlights 82 Georgia counties that don’t have any OB/GYNs and another (below right) that lists the state’s poor ranking in a number of health-related categories. Whether that kind of messaging cuts through remains to be seen. I don’t have the benefit of any polling data, but I’m skeptical that statewide numbers resonate at local levels.

Take, for example, Brantley County. Located in deep southeast Georgia, Brantley County ranks near the bottom of every national economic, educational, and health analysis I’ve conducted. Nationally, it ranks in the bottom one percent of U.S. counties for per capita income, the bottom five percent for educational attainment, and the bottom 13 percent for premature death — and it’s actually doing better than a fair number of its neighboring rural Georgia counties.

But the thing that distinguishes Brantley County is that it’s the most Republican county in the entire state. In the 2016 presidential election, Brantley County voters gave Donald Trump 88 percent of their vote. In the governor’s race two years later, they went for Kemp by an even bigger margin — 91.3 percent to 8.1 percent for Abrams. In the 2020 presidential race, they sided 10-to-1 with Trump: 90.3 percent for the incumbent Republican to 9.0 percent for Joe Biden.

If voters anywhere ought to be frustrated with their economic, education, and health situations, you’d think it would be the folks in Brantley County — especially since they’ve been losing ground in recent years. In 2002, the last year a Democrat occupied the governor’s office, its average PCI was 63.3 percent of the national average; in 2020, the latest year for which data is available, Brantley’s average PCI was down to 50.4 percent of the national average.

Kemp, of course, is at no risk of losing Brantley County, but if Abrams succeeds at getting even a small fraction of voters there and in other beleaguered blood-red counties to think about something other than the party label, it just might make a difference.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022

Georgia’s 2021 births rebound slightly from the Covid dip, but still don’t match pre-Covid numbers

The Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) is up with its 2021 county-level birth data and the good news is that the number of births last year rebounded a bit from the Covid dip in 2020. The less than good news is that the rebound was well short of the 2019 numbers and it looks like the state’s long-running baby bust is continuing.

Altogether, Georgia recorded 123,971 new births in 2021 — up nearly 1,600 from 2020 but still nearly 2,300 under pre-Covid’s 2019 totals. Nearly 98 percent of those added births took place generally north of the gnat line, in TIGC’s 12-county Metro Atlanta region or its 41-county North Georgia territory. Combined, the 106 counties in Georgia’s Middle Georgia, South Georgia and Coastal Georgia regions added only 38 births to their 2020 totals.

However, those high-level numbers mask some interesting racial and localized differences — principally a big difference in the number of White and Black births. Statewide, White births were up 2,742 in 2021, an increase of 4.0 percent over 2020 and, in fact, a slight increase over 2019. Black births, however, were down 1,422, or 3.1 percent versus 2020.

This represents something of a change from recent years, although it’s impossible to know whether it’s simply a one-year anomaly or perhaps the beginning of a trend. Whites, with a larger population in Georgia, have always produced more births than Blacks, but the trend lines have moved in rough parallel throughout the quarter-century for which DPH has data — with a couple of notable exceptions.

As the graph below shows, between 1994 and 2006, the gap between White and Black births had gradually widened — peaking at about 45,000 for several years in the early 2000s. But White births declined dramatically in 2007 and ’08, probably at least partly due to the Great Recession, and then continued to decline at a slower pace for several years. Black births also declined, although not as precipitously, with the result that the difference in the number of White and Black births has narrowed dramatically in recent years. That difference peaked at 45,553 in 2004; by 2020, it had been cut in half, down to 22,563.

Of the total 123,971 births recorded in Georgia last year, just under two-thirds took place in the 53 counties that comprise TIGC’s Metro Atlanta and North Georgia regions — 81,421 versus the 42,550 in the 106 counties in TIGC’s Middle, South and Coastal Georgia regions.

This map illustrates the percentage change in the number of births for each county. The darker the green, the greater the increase; the darker the red, the greater the decline. As a region, Southwest Georgia suffered the biggest drop in the number of births, but the strip of northwest Georgia counties along the Alabama line wasn’t far behind.

These numbers — in combination with the aforementioned fact that nearly 98 percent of the births over and above 2020’s totals took place in Metro Atlanta and North Georgia — are in line with the long-running shift in population to the northern half of the state.

The 2021 numbers include some unexpected anomalies. The largest percentage increase in births, for instance, took place in tiny Montgomery County, a slice-of-pie-shaped county in southeast Georgia. The number of births there increased to 124 from 87, an increase of 37, or 42.5 percent. About three hours to the west, Calhoun County was at the opposite end of the spectrum. The number of births there fell to 31 from 52, a drop of 40.4 percent.

Another somewhat surprising development is the unbroken string of counties along the Alabama line in northwest Georgia that saw the number of births fall in 2021 — Dade, Walker, Chattooga, Floyd, Polk, Haralson, Carroll and Heard on the Alabama line, plus Whitfield and Gordon just to their east.

For several years now, TIGC has monitored county-level births and deaths and reported on the rising number of Georgia counties recording more deaths than births. Last year, that number jumped to 118 counties, up from 78 in 2019, thanks in part to Covid. The state’s county-level mortality data for 2021 should be published by DPH in July or August.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022

Will the 2022 governor’s race give us an actual debate about the trouble in God’s country?

Now that David Alfred Perdue’s bloodied political corpse has been dispatched to its final resting place at Sea Island (without, we can probably surmise, even a brief opportunity to lie in state at Mar-a-Lago), the long-awaited gubernatorial heavyweight rematch between Brian Kemp, the incumbent Republican, and Democratic Party challenger Stacey Abrams can begin in earnest. 

It’s arguably been underway for a while now.  Early last week, even before the party primaries, the Kemp camp fired a salvo at Abrams for what they and some in the media called a “gaffe” – a statement that she was weary of listening to Kemp brag about Georgia being the No. 1 state in which to do business while it was “the worst state in the country to live.”

I’ll offer a contrarian view.

Georgia as a whole may not deserve the “worst place to live” label, but Rural Georgia arguably does.  In fact, much of Republican Georgia would qualify for that title.

Abrams has since acknowledged her statement was “inelegant” but she’s doubled down on her central point – and she’s right to do so.  In the process, she may have set in motion a long-overdue gubernatorial debate over what to do about the trouble in God’s country.

Let’s take a look at the 105 rural Georgia counties* with populations of less than 35,000. 

105 Georgia counties have populations of less than 35,000 people. See below for complete list.

Combined, these counties had an average 2020 per capita income (PCI) of $39,027.  That’s just 65.6 percent of the national average** and $3,103 less than Mississippi, which is the actual state at the bottom of the nation’s 2020 PCI heap, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA).  Per capita income in the other 54 Georgia counties was $54,183, or 91 percent of the national average.

Those 105 counties, according to Census Bureau data for the years 2015-2019, were home to more high school dropouts than college graduates – 210,748 to 184,399.  Here again, rural Georgia makes Mississippi look good: the Magnolia State actually has more college graduates than high school dropouts – 435,153 versus 306,105. 

What about health status, you say?  Glad you asked.  The 2020 premature death rate for these 105 counties comes in at a third world number: 12,148 years of potential life lost before age 75 per every 100,000 people in those 105 counties.   That’s nearly 50 percent worse than the premature death rate for the rest of Georgia: 8,304. 

It’s also significantly worse than the actual states at the bottom of the national list.  According to the latest data from County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, Mississippi is dead last with a YPLL 75 rate of 11,324 and Alabama, third from the bottom, has a comparatively stellar rate of 10,350.  (Here, I should acknowledge I’m comparing slightly different sizes of apples.  I’m pulling the Georgia county data from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) while relying on County Health Rankings for other state-level data.  The numbers will vary slightly, but not a great deal.)

(For what it’s worth, I’d suggest Abrams should directly critique the underpinnings of the state’s much-vaunted claim to being the No. 1 state in which to do business, but I’ll save that for another post.)

It’s also worth noting, as I suggested above, that Rural Georgia is overwhelmingly Republican.  Those 105 counties combined gave Kemp 71 percent of their vote to 28 percent for Abrams in the 2018 governor’s race, and things haven’t changed much since then.  They went 70 percent for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

On the basis of those numbers alone, Abrams could be forgiven if she didn’t bother campaigning or investing campaign resources outside Metro Atlanta and other Democratic strongholds around the state.  Every minute or dollar she spends trying to win a new vote in, say, Glascock County is a minute or dollar she won’t have to turn out a sure vote in Metro Atlanta.

But she is at least making a show of going after Rural Georgia’s votes.  She actually kicked off her campaign in Cuthbert, Ga.  I’ve been to Cuthbert.  It’s not easy to get there.  One route suggested by Google Maps is to cross over into Alabama, drive south to Eufaula, and turn left.

Further, she has branded her campaign “One Georgia” and regularly peppers her public remarks with references to rural Georgia.  Her campaign website includes a decent section on “Rural Revitalization” that spells out pledges to expand Medicaid (which Kemp and his Republican predecessor, Nathan Deal, have refused to do, despite polls showing broad public support for it), invest in rural broadband and overhaul rural education funding formulas.

Still, it has to be said that her bet on rural Georgia is a long shot and that Kemp goes into the campaign as a prohibitive favorite.  I could find no comparable language on rural policy on his campaign website, but his administration’s recent economic development wins (Rivian, Aspen Aerogels, and now Hyundai) may be a more than sufficient response.  Kemp also begins the General Election campaign as a political giant-killer.  He beat Perdue by a stunning 52 percentage points and knee-capped Donald J. Trump in the process, perhaps crippling him not just in Georgia but nationally.

But even if Abrams fails to cut into the GOP’s rural stronghold and comes up short again, she appears certain to force a long-overdue political discussion about the trouble in God’s country – and that will be no small public service.

*Georgia counties with populations of fewer than 35,000 people: Appling Atkinson Bacon Baker Banks Ben Hill Berrien Bleckley Brantley Brooks Burke Butts Calhoun Candler Charlton Chattahoochee Chattooga Clay Clinch Cook Crawford Crisp Dade Dawson Decatur Dodge Dooly Early Echols Elbert Emanuel Evans Fannin Franklin Gilmer Glascock Grady Greene Hancock Haralson Hart Heard Irwin Jasper Jeff Davis Jefferson Jenkins Johnson Jones Lamar Lanier Lee Lincoln Long Lumpkin Macon Madison Marion McDuffie McIntosh Meriwether Miller Mitchell Monroe Montgomery Morgan Oglethorpe Peach Pickens Pierce Pike Pulaski Putnam Quitman Rabun Randolph Schley Screven Seminole Stephens Stewart Sumter Talbot Taliaferro Tattnall Taylor Telfair Terrell Toombs Towns Treutlen Turner Twiggs Union Upson Warren Washington Wayne Webster Wheeler White Wilcox Wilkes Wilkinson Worth

** The original version of this post reported that the average 2020 per capita income for the 105 counties listed above was 61 percent of the national average. That was incorrect. The correct figure was 65.6 percent. The copy above has been corrected.

(C) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022

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

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