Perhaps in a few years, each of us will look back and tell of the moment we realized that this economy was spiraling in an exceptional and dreadful way.
When that time comes, I will remember a party out in the ‘burbs of Atlanta last summer. The wife and I were accidental attendees, courtesy of a couple we knew from high school.
The mansion was a multi-million dollar monument to the Southern high life, with countless kitchens and bedrooms and sitting rooms, never mind the home theater, servant quarters, sauna, indoor-outdoor pools and breathless view.
Liquor flowed free. Caterers offered acres of food. Music was non-stop. A dance troupe performed. And the house interior was dressed to the nines – because the party was in fact a last-chance business proposition.
The owner was a developer who had bet that the South’s love affair with growth, its ability to lure a ceaseless tide of newcomers into a sunny and economical embrace, would continue as it has for nearly 50 years.
But the bet had soured. The developer had fallen hopelessly behind on his mansion payments. If one of the 300 or so invited guests couldn’t be persuaded to pick up the mortgage, the bank would assume ownership.
This was a going-bust party, a last hurrah on the edge of a cliff. Similar, but smaller, displays of bravado have no doubt occurred across the nation. But the evening was an eye-opener in a region that, over the last half-century, had become famous for weathering hard times.
The statistics are still preliminary, but there are indications that the flow of new residents into the state – an important key to Georgia’s economic boom – has slowed significantly.
The state’s public school population normally increases by 20,000 to 30,000 students each and every year. Like clockwork. When school began last fall, officials counted only 6,000 additional students.
Child’s play, you say.
But adults, too, are apparently arriving in fewer numbers. Last week, the helpful people at the state Department of Driver Services came across this nugget: In 2008, the number of out-of-state license transfers dropped nearly 7 percent, to 216,131. It was the second decline in two years.
In Florida, such transfers have dropped 30 percent in five years.
The numbers have implications both political and economic. Because representation in Congress is based on population, decades of migration to the Sunbelt have increased the clout of the portion of America that extends from California to Florida.
After the 2010 census, Georgia is expected to add one more congressional seat to the 13 it already has. But talk that the state might add two seats has all but disappeared.
The bigger impact is economic, of course. “You’re not going to get unlimited growth without workers. The state’s economy has been dependent on new people moving in and spending their money,” said University of Georgia demographer Doug Bachtel.
According to the state Labor Department, in each of the last 12 months, Georgia has had a higher unemployment rate than the nation as a whole. This in a state where a diversified economy, a non-unionized workforce, and even the weather had worked to soften blows from previous downturns.
“With a nationwide recession, there’s less reason for people to move around,” said Roger Tutterow, a professor of economics at Mercer University.
And perhaps that is the larger, positive point. Since World War II, the history of the South has been its effort to rejoin the Union. Not just socially, through the struggle over segregation and Civil Rights, but economically. We’ve wanted to look commercial hubs in New York or Boston or Chicago in the eye, as equals.
We have finally achieved that equality. We’re hurting as badly as everyone else. Maybe more.