NOTE: This column has been updated with new state-level unemployment numbers for August, released at 10 a.m. by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Since 2002, median household income in Georgia has fallen by 14.4 percent. While the national unemployment rate has fallen to 8.1 percent, here in Georgia it stands at 9.2 percent, unchanged since January. It is significantly higher than in Alabama, Florida or Tennessee.
In fact, Georgia’s unemployment rate has now exceeded the national average every month for the last five years, a string of 61 months that shows no sign of ending soon.
And while I don’t have numbers to support it, the data cited above and anecdotal evidence suggest that ambitious, educated young Georgians are today being forced to look outside their state to pursue their dreams. We have long been a net importer of young talent to help drive the Georgia economy; there’s good reason to believe that we have now become a net exporter.
So it seems fair to ask: What’s the plan?
The trends are all in the wrong direction, and as a state and as a metropolitan area we are underperforming the nation and many of our peers. So where’s the plan to reverse those trends? Where’s the vision?
Ten years ago this fall, Sonny Perdue became the first Republican elected governor of this state since Reconstruction. In his eight years in office, he was content to act as a caretaker, more interested in leveraging his office into personal business success than in undertaking any major initiatives. The state Legislature and much of the state’s business community seemed perfectly content to follow his lack of leadership.
Gov. Nathan Deal, elected in 2010, has been more pro-active than Perdue and to his credit took a risk in backing the proposed transportation sales-tax referendum across the state. But since the defeat of that proposal Deal has all but washed his hands of the transportation crisis that continues to threaten economic development. Unless I’ve missed it, there is no sense of urgency, vision or direction coming out of the governor’s office. Like Perdue, he is perfectly comfortable trying to advance the economic interests of individual Georgians, such as the campaign contributor to whom he steered a $4.8 million grant to drill a well at state expense. But a more broad-based prosperity program is apparently not in the works.
Part of it is undoubtedly ideology. Deal, Perdue and their fellow Republicans distrust an activist government (although again, it is interesting to note the occasions in which they manage to set that distrust aside). That ideology also instructs them to put great faith in the power of repeated tax cuts and less aggressive enforcement of regulation to draw growth.
That philosophy has had its impact. Taxes are lower. Per student, inflation-adjusted state spending on education is down 14.8 percent since 2008, the seventh-biggest drop in the country. We have little money to spend on transportation, and the Ogeechee River suffered the biggest fishkill in state history last year, and state officials have yet to act decisively against the culprit.
But after almost a decade of talk about the economic nirvana such a strategy would produce in Georgia, it seems fair to ask: Is it working? Is it — dare we ask — actually counterproductive in a modern economy? And even if we set that politically volatile question aside, is it time for this state’s elected leadership to take an active role in trying to reverse its economic decline, or is the passive attitude of the last 10 years the best we can do?
– Jay Bookman