Mapping the rise and fall of Georgia’s per capita income performance
In my last piece, I summarized some of my recent research into the per capita income (PCI) “cold case” I’ve been noodling over for the past year or so and promised several follow-ups. This is the first of those.
As a starting point, I thought it might be useful to spread some key data points across the last four decades of Georgia’s political time-scape. My objective here is to make it relatively easy to see how Georgia’s PCI picture has evolved from one gubernatorial administration to another. As I’ve noted before, Georgia posted remarkable gains in per capita income in its final two decades of Democratic governance and then surrendered all those gains in its first two decades under Republican governors. The tables and maps below are pegged to key political years and will, I hope, make the pattern easy to see and understand.
Now, does this mean I think the dramatic decline in Georgia’s PCI performance owes entirely to the state’s transition from Democratic governance to Republican rule? No, for a couple of reasons. One is that the onset of the decline coincided so perfectly with the beginning of the first GOP governor’s term that you have to think the forces driving it were already at work. The second is that the data can be a little murky, especially when you zoom out and take a multi-state view of the situation.
The graph below illustrates how Georgia (the fat red line) and its neighboring states measured up against the national average (the straight blue line at the 100% mark) for per capita income from 1982 through 2021 (the latest year for which data is available).
Each state’s PCI fortunes ebbed and flowed between 1982 and 2021, and Florida, Tennessee and Alabama all suffered declines in PCI performance that coincided roughly with the Georgia plunge that started in 2003. But Georgia’s decline was easily the longest and deepest of any of the states shown above. Our PCI lost nine points against the national average during the gubernatorial administration of Sonny Perdue, Georgia’s first Republican governor in 130 years.
For most of the 40-year period graphed above, Georgia trailed only Florida among the southeastern states in PCI performance, and until the turn of the century it was mostly gaining ground on both Florida and the national average. By the end of this study period, however, the state had lost ground not only on Florida, but had fallen behind Tennessee and North Carolina as well.
This analysis is based on per capita income data produced by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and mid-year population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. For each year illustrated below, I ranked all 3,100-plus counties in the country (for which data was available) by PCI and then divided that list into national quartiles.
The maps show the Georgia counties in each of the four national PCI quartiles for each of the years analyzed. The counties shown in dark green are in the top national quartile for per capita income; those in light green are in the second national quartile; salmon-colored, third quartile; and dark red, bottom quartile.
Governor Joe Frank Harris: 1983-1990
A veteran member of the Georgia House of Representatives and chairman of its Appropriations Committee, Harris won a hotly contested gubernatorial race in 1982 and succeeded Governor George Busbee in the governor’s office. When he took office, Georgia’s per capita income was 85.4 percent of the national average the state ranked 38th among the 50 states. Ninety-one of the state’s 159 counties were in the bottom national quartile that year, and they were home to 21.8 percent of the state’s population.
Harris continued the international business prospecting Busbee had initiated, and his economic development chief, the late George Berry, put a bright spotlight on the importance of improving the state’s per capita income, proselytizing about it in speeches all over the state. Toward the end of Harris’s term, the General Assembly created a job tax credit program that essentially codified raising PCI — along with lowering unemployment and reducing poverty — as key economic development goals.
Governor Zell Miller: 1991-1998
Miller succeeded Harris as governor after serving four terms as lieutenant governor and inherited a much-improved PCI map from Harris. By the time Miller took office, the number of Georgia counties in the bottom national quartile was down to 61 and the share of the population had been cut nearly in half, to 11.8 percent. Miller also oversaw eight years of slow but steady PCI improvement.
Miller had the good fortune to preside over a red-hot Atlanta economy (fueled in no small part by the 1996 Olympics), but he also put in place a number of policies and programs that arguably contributed strategically to the state’s continued economic progress. These included the HOPE scholarship program and the creation of the Georgia Research Alliance.
In turn, the PCI map Miller handed off to his successor was also much improved.
Governor Roy E. Barnes, 1999-2002
By the time Barnes, a veteran state legislator, took office as governor in January 1999, Georgia’s per capita income stood at 94.9 percent of the national average and the state ranked 25th among the 50 states. Moreover, the number of counties stuck in the bottom national quartile was down to 50 and the percentage of the state’s population in that group was below 10 percent.
Barnes, who told me Harris had “educated” him on the importance of raising PCI as an economic development goal, had the misfortune of presiding over state government during a period defined by the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, which stalled the U.S. economy nationally. Georgia’s PCI performance basically plateaued during the Barnes years.
At the same time, Barnes took actions that arguably helped advance the state’s economic progress. One was the creation of the OneGeorgia Authority, whose enabling legislation was the first state law to acknowledge that rural Georgia was falling behind the state’s urban regions.
A second was to convince the General Assembly to strip the Confederate battle emblem from the Georgia state flag. That action contributed significantly to Barnes’s defeat in 2002 at the hands of Perdue.
Governor Sonny Perdue, 2003-2010.
Perdue took office in January 2003, becoming the first Republican to win the keys to the governor’s office in more than 130 years.
In 2006, Perdue’s economic development department landed what was then the largest economic development win in the state’s history — a $1.2 billion commitment by Hyundai-Kia Automotive Group to build a new Kia manufacturing plant in Troup County, Ga. The new plant would employ nearly 3,000 workers and spawn another 2,600 jobs at supplier facilities, according to a press release issued by the governor’s office.
While Perdue earned big political props for the Kia win (Kia broke ground on the new plant just weeks before Perdue’s reelection to a second term as governor), it also came as he was presiding over the early stages of a steady decline in the state’s PCI performance. At the end of his first term, Georgia’s per capita income had slipped from 94.6 percent of the national average in 2002 to 91.3 percent and the percentage of Georgians living in the bottom national quartile counties had jumped from 9.7 percent to 17.4 percent. The number of Georgia’s bottom national quartile counties had climbed from 53 to 79.
This deterioration continued throughout Perdue’s second term. By the time he finished his second term and turned the keys to the governor’s office over to Nathan Deal, the number of Georgia counties in the bottom national quartile was up to 104 and the percentage of Georgians living in them had more than tripled from the time Perdue first took office. Georgia’s PCI as a percentage of the national average was down to 85.6 percent and the state ranked 40th among the 50 states. Basically, Georgia was back where it had been when Joe Frank Harris took office 28 years earlier.
Governor Nathan Deal, 2011-2018.
Deal thus inherited the worst per capita income map in, at least, Georgia’s modern history. And while he, like Perdue, scored a major economic development win by luring Caterpillar to the Athens area, the deterioration in Georgia’s PCI performance continued through his first term as governor.
In 2014, the number of Georgia counties in the bottom national quartile rose to 111 and the number of Georgians living in those counties hit 3.4 million, or 34.2 percent of the state’s population. That year, there were more Georgians living in bottom-quartile counties than in any other quartile.
Georgia also had more of its residents in that bottom national quartile than any other state. Texas, with nearly triple Georgia’s population, had only 3.08 million people in that bottom quartile.
By now, though, at least some members of the public policy community were beginning to notice the decline in PCI performance.
The aforementioned George Berry wrote a column for Georgia Trend magazine exhorting Deal to focus on that metric:
“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.”
In 2012, Maria Saporta, easily Atlanta’s longest-serving business journalist, weighed in with a column in her online newsletter, SaportaReport, quoting both Berry and another veteran of Georgia’s economic development wars, Annie Hunt Burriss. Burriss, who had worked for Berry in the Harris administration and then gone on to play a number of other important roles in state government, was leaving Georgia for a senior education position in Virginia and spoke to a group of leaders about economic development in the state.
“The thing I fear most right now is that we have gotten fat, dumb and happy,” Burriss said. “What are we doing to innovate our economy? If you look at what our investment strategy is right now, I don’t know what it is.”
Berry sounded a similar note. “We need to get our mojo back,” he told Saporta. “Everything that comes to the governor’s desk, the question that must be asked is how does this move us to the per capita national income. People have (been) telling us this for the history of our state. We were on the right trajectory, and now we are not.”
Governor Brian Kemp, 2019-current
Whether Deal and his successor, Brian Kemp, heard those public pleas is unclear. But the state’s PCI overall performance did bottom out under Deal and then begin a slow crawl back up that has continued under Kemp.
By the end of 2021 — the latest year for which data is available — Georgia’s PCI stood at 87 percent of the national average and we ranked 38th among the 50 states, the same rank we held when Harris took office four decades ago.
There is an important difference between then and now, however, and here it’s important to point out that “overall” is the operative word a couple of paragraphs above. As the map at right shows, much of rural Georgia, especially south of the line that runs from Columbus-Muscogee County through Macon-Bibb County and over to Augusta-Richmond County, appears mired in the bottom national quartile for PCI performance.
Indeed, that includes virtually every county in east-central and southeast Georgia except for the coastal counties. Scan back through the prior maps and it’s easy to see how this unhappy picture has developed.
When Harris took office, the number of counties in the bottom national quartile stood at 91 and they were less concentrated in a single region. Perhaps more significant, the percentage of Georgians living in those bottom quartile counties stood at 21.8 percent in 1982. As of 2021, the number of counties stuck in the bottom national quartile stood at 104 and the share of Georgians living in these bottom quartile counties was just under 30 percent.
A closing thought, for now. Key takeaways from this data include not just how disproportionately Georgians are represented in this bottom national quartile, but how quickly they fell into it. In just a few short years, Georgia went from being generally proportionally represented at the bottom of the national PCI heap to dominating it, in terms of both the number of counties represented and the share of its population.
I’ll leave it to others to judge whether these changes were driven by unseen economic forces, a shift in policy by newly-elected Republican governors, some combination of the two — or something else entirely.
The more urgent question, it seems to me, is what the state should do about it. I have found similar patterns in education, population health and other economic data, and the picture that emerges is one of huge swaths of the state devolving into a third world territory.
The challenge of slowing and reversing these trends is one that ought to command the attention of public policymakers in both parties and at all levels of government in Georgia.
Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2023