Unemployment in metro Atlanta fell by almost a full point between February 2011 and February 2012, declining from 9.9 to 9 percent. In more human terms, more than 60,000 of our friends, neighbors and relatives are now back to work.
That’s a welcome sign of progress, as was Thursday’s announcement of 1,500 jobs coming to a new medical-products plant to be built near Social Circle. After a difficult lag, metro Atlanta finally appears to be benefiting from the nation’s slow, awkward recovery, even if we still have a long way to go.
In fact, Atlanta has a lot farther to travel than many metro regions that we might think of as competitors. Almost every region got hit hard by the recession; as an economy highly dependent on home construction, Atlanta got hit worse than most. But if you look closely, this region’s economy had begun to stumble and falter long before the recession hit. The housing bubble merely made those problems harder to recognize.
Through the ’90s, for example, per capita income in metro Atlanta was increasing fast, more quickly than in most other metro areas. That was a sign of a vibrant regional economy attracting and creating wealth.
But around the turn of the century, that increase simply stopped. While per capita income continued to grow elsewhere, it simply flat-lined in metro Atlanta, and when the recession hit that number collapsed. In fact, when you look at what per capita income has done in the last 20 years, the performance of the 28-county metro Atlanta area closely mirrors that of metro Detroit.
The Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, recently released its assessment of the economic performance of the top 200 metro areas in the world from 2010 to 2011. Metro Atlanta ranked 189th of 200, behind New Orleans, Memphis, Birmingham and other U.S. cities, and well behind Detroit. We even ranked one notch below Cairo, Egypt.
Those numbers suggest that merely riding the crest of a slowly improving national economy will not be enough for metro Atlanta. They also demonstrate the foolishness of trying to recreate the prosperity of a past that wasn’t as prosperous as we thought.
That prosperity had been driven by Atlanta’s success in reproducing the auto-centric, sprawling, decentralized development pattern that had characterized American cities for the prior half century. And while those auto-dependent suburbs will continue to be a great place to live and raise families for many, economic indicators, growth markers, investment patterns and social trends all tell us that’s not how future growth will occur.
A new survey by the National Association of Realtors, for example, found that “nearly six in ten adults would prefer to live in a neighborhood with a mix of houses and stores and other businesses within an easy walk” than in a more auto-dependent suburb. Even more telling, young people are not as enthralled with the automobile as their parents and grandparents had been. In 1983, 69 percent of American 17-year-olds had a driver’s license. By 2008, that had dropped to 50 percent, and I bet it has fallen still further since then.
The country is changing. The market is changing. And while a number of business and civic leaders in the metro Atlanta region understand that reality, I don’t believe that our political leaders at the state level, particularly at the Legislature, fully grasp the necessity of reinventing ourselves and reinvesting in ourselves, and of giving us the transit, planning and governance tools to make those changes.
– Jay Bookman