A year ago, I stumbled onto a TIGC story that has occupied much of my attention since then. It started when I took what I thought would be a quick look at the latest county-level per capita income (PCI) data from the federal government. As part of that “quick look,” I compared Georgia’s county-level PCI performance to nearly all the other counties in the country and unexpectedly found that we have more counties and more people stuck in the bottom national PCI quartile than any other state.
That discovery pulled me into a year-long examination of barrels full of data, most of it economic, but a lot having to do with education, health, and even politics. I’ve come to think of it as an economics and political cold case, one with myriad clues scattered across geography and time.
Were TIGC a TV crime drama about cold cases, this would be the scene where the investigators stand staring (and still confused) at a huge murder board covered with a mishmash of massive spreadsheets, newspaper clips, and handwritten notes, among other materials. Thick lines would be drawn with Magic Markers to show connections amongst the various dots.
The show’s not over yet, but I can begin to report some of my findings and frame some new questions. For starters, I can offer a body count and damage assessment that I’ve been hesitant to put forward before now.
Tragically, Georgia now has 36 counties that I would declare dead at the scene and dozens more, mostly south of the gnat line, that have been badly wounded and may not make it to a hospital (if there’s still one nearby, that is).
For this post, I’ve compared the performance of Georgia’s 159 counties against roughly 3,000 other counties nationally in four economic categories — per capita income, poverty, gross domestic product per capita, and median household income. I’ve ranked all the counties in each category and then divided each set of rankings into quartiles.
My overarching finding is that Georgia has a highly disproportionate number of counties and shares of population in the bottom national quartile in each of those categories. Here’s a topline summary of what I’ve found so far:
2020 Per Capita Income: One hundred and seven Georgia counties are home to 3.454 million people who fell into the bottom national quartile of 778 counties in this category. That’s more counties and more people than any other state. By comparison, only 39 of Texas’s 254 counties and 3.449 million of its 29.21 million residents landed in the bottom quartile for PCI. Closer to home, Florida has double Georgia’s population but far fewer of its residents — 1.94 million — in this bottom quartile. Similarly, only 29 of North Carolina’s 100 counties and 1.3 million of its 10.45 million residents (only slightly smaller than Georgia’s population) landed in the bottom quartile.
As the map at right shows, most of Georgia’s land mass falls into that bottom quartile. Nationwide, 25.088 million people live in bottom quartile counties. Nearly 14 percent of those are in Georgia.
2020 Poverty: Eighty-nine Georgia counties fell into the bottom national quartile for poverty, based on the Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE) produced by U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
Here, too, Georgia had the largest number of counties in this bottom quartile, and one of the largest populations. Georgia has a total of about 2.66 million people living in these high-poverty counties.
That compares to 1.12 million people living in the 25 Florida counties that landed in this bottom national quartile and 1.62 North Carolinians in that state’s 32 bottom quartile counties.
2020 Median Household Income: The picture here is similar to the PCI and poverty maps. In this case, 76 Georgia counties fell into the bottom national quartile, and there is obviously substantial overlap with the first two maps. Here as well, Georgia has more counties in this bottom national quartile than any other state.
2020 Gross Domestic Product Per Capita: This relatively new dataset from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) offers a county-level look at economic output, and here the picture is a little different. As the map at the left shows, the 81 Georgia counties in the bottom national quartile for this category tend to be more scattered across the state and are less concentrated in South Georgia. This category does, however, have a couple of things in common with the other categories: Georgia once again has more counties in this bottom national quartile than any other state, and the 2.3 million people who live in those counties are among the largest populations stuck in this bottom tier. Texas (with, again, nearly three times the population of Georgia) has 2.9 million people living in the 44 counties that fall into this bottom tier, and retiree-heavy Florida has 3.71 million people living in its 31 low-GDP-per-capita counties.
Finally, Georgia has 36 counties that made the bottom national quartile in all four of these economic categories — and these are the ones I pronounce dead at the scene.
Readers familiar with the geography of poverty and economic deprivation in Georgia will not be surprised at this last map, and, indeed, much of it calls to mind the “crescent of poverty” the late George Berry described for me in an interview a year or so before his death.
Berry had arguably the most storied public administration career in Georgia history. In the 1980s, he served under Governor Joe Frank Harris as commissioner of the Department of Industry, Trade and Tourism (now Economic Development) and was apparently the first individual in that role to emphasize raising per capita income as a key state economic development objective.
(Under Berry’s leadership, the state made remarkable progress in improving PCI through his term and for a decade afterward, only to backslide after the turn of the century.)
In our interview, however, Berry lamented that he “never came up with an answer for what I called ‘crescent of poverty’.”
Neither, obviously, has anybody else. I’ll flesh out their travails in future posts, but it’s difficult at this point to fathom how any of these counties might be resuscitated.
Watch this space for a detailed post-mortem on these 36 counties.