Commentary: A Vital Statistic
As a political accomplishment, one can only stand in awe of the recent Republican sweep of Georgia elective offices. Republicans now occupy all of the state’s major elected leadership positions, and for the foreseeable future the state’s key political battleground will be the Republican primary.
It’s a wonder the Democrat/African-American coalition that ruled Georgia for 50 years held on so long. Ideologically, there is not that much difference between the conservative Democrat of the past and today’s conservative Republican.
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.
For decades Georgians lagged in this elemental measure. As late as the onset of World War II, we were barely at 60 percent of the national average per capita income. This is not an abstract but rather an intensely personal statistic. It measures how much education one can afford, how much healthcare one receives, whether one can take his children to a dentist and even how many culturally enriching experiences one can have.
More dramatically, low per capita income translates into higher infant mortality rates and shorter lifespans.
Exactly when Georgia got serious about becoming the economic equal of other states is debatable. Some date it from the demise of the county unit system and the election of Carl Sanders as governor in l962. Others say it began earlier, during World War II, with the coming of the Bell Aircraft plant and military bases and their high-paying jobs.
Nonetheless, Georgia began a single-minded march toward economic parity that is the defining legacy of the past 50 years.
As the Democrat dominance wanes, it is only fair to pay tribute to the leaders who were in charge when that progress was made.
In 1996, according to Georgia State Univers-ity’s Fiscal Research Center, Georgia reached 95 percent of the national per capita average, but regressed to 88.5 percent in 2008.
The center has done an analysis of the reasons for our fall. Despite the fact that our populations of youth and the elderly have grown faster than other states’, the basic reason for our relative lack of progress is simply that we have lost high-paying jobs and replaced them with lower-paying jobs. Only Michigan has fared worse than Georgia in this vital statistic.
How Georgia was initially successful in closing the gap had to do with increasing educational opportunities, infrastructure (interstate highways and Atlanta’s airport), aggressive marketing, the extraordinary growth of Metro Atlanta and the fact that every governor made economic development an overriding priority.
No less important was ensuring that Georgia and Atlanta presented an image of good race relations compared to other southern cities. Great leaders like Robert Woodruff, former Mayors William B. Hartsfield and Ivan Allen, Jr., and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., made the case that racial harmony meant better economic opportunities for all our people, and they were right.
If Georgians earned at the national average, they would be producing more than $300 billion in additional earnings that would be subject to state income and sales taxes. Think how far those dollars would go toward solving the state’s problems.
The new governor and his team should keep before them one great criterion: “How will what we do move Georgians toward 100 percent of the national average per capita income?” This can inform almost all decisions, even social policy. Reducing teen pregnancies to single parents, for instance, would have a significant long-term impact.
If our new governor can improve this vital statistic, he will be assured of a successful administration. Because it is a measure easily calculated, everyone can keep score. It is in all of our best interests that Gov. Deal be the one to celebrate that day when Georgia finally achieves 100 per- cent of the national average per capita income.