0

Some good news for Georgia

"Georgia median income (is) just shy of national average," read the happiest Georgia headline that we have seen in months.

The story beneath the caption glistened like a gold nugget in the midst of a dark night of economic pessimism.

Georgians' income has just about caught up with the income of other Americans, the U.S. Census Bureau said in a news release last week. It may be time to celebrate.

Look what has happened:

• Georgia's median household income in 2003 rose to $42,421. At No. 28 among the states, we are just $897 shy of the national average.

• The Peach State had a higher median household income than any other Southern state except Virginia, which reported a median income of $50,028.

• Georgia beat its immediate neighbors handily. The feds reported $39,438 for North Carolina, $38,985 for Florida, $38,003 for South Carolina, $37,925 for Tennessee and $36,131 for Alabama. Mississippi ranked last in the nation with a median family income of just $32,297. By the way, Connecticut ($56,409) came in first, and New Jersey ($56,356) was second.

• Several suburban counties boosted Georgia's numbers considerably. Fayette County ($74,320), heavily populated by well-paid air-transportation personnel, led the state. Forsyth County ($72,945) was second, and Cherokee ($63,616) ran third.

Admittedly, those numbers are two years old. Since 2003, Georgia has been struck by a series of economic downers, including Delta Air Lines' bankruptcy. Some energy may have been sapped from the steady climb.

Still, the dull government numbers represent a dramatic story of economic turnaround that ought to make the gloomiest soul stir with optimism.

When one considers where Georgia started, the state's arrival at 98 percent of the national average stands as a stunning achievement. Barely 50 years ago, statisticians gauged Georgians' incomes at less than half the national average.

Compared to the rest of the United States, Georgia was bogged down in poverty, from the mountains to the seashore.

Our economic engine began to warm up slightly during World War II. In the 1960s, Georgians determinedly began to march toward economic parity. The movement was especially noticeable in state politics.

Elected on a segregationist platform in 1958, Gov. Ernest Vandiver decided in the early 1960s that Georgia had had enough of empty demagoguery. He vowed to preserve the state's public school system in the face of court-ordered racial integration. He oversaw the comparatively peaceful desegregation of the university system. Meanwhile, other Southern states seethed with violence. Vandiver's moderate policies sent a signal to the nation's economic movers and shakers that Georgia's business climate was stable and inviting.

The election of Gov. Carl Sanders in 1962 marked the real beginning of a 40-year cycle of economic growth. Georgia broke from its decrepit past of race-baiting and sharecropping. At the behest of visionary business leaders, the Sanders administration focused on improving public schools and upgrading the university system.

The politics of race were pushed aside. Creating more jobs and putting more cash into Georgians, pockets became a foremost goal of Sanders and most of the 20th-century governors who followed him.

The 1960s produced a boom for Georgia, especially in metro Atlanta. Even current expansion numbers cannot match the growth in that era.

By the early 1970s, Georgia residents' income had achieved more than 70 percent of national parity. At last, Georgia was living up to its self-bestowed grand title, "Empire State of the South."

Despite the generally high growth numbers, much of Georgia - known in some circles as "the other Georgia" - has not fared well. In rural areas, deep pockets of bone-crunching poverty still exist, as they have for a hundred years. White flight and white abandonment of public schools have turned some urban centers into virtual ghettos.

At the beginning of the new century, the tone of state politics has changed. Education is no longer the state's No. 1 priority. The once fiercely independent university system is in danger of becoming a state-level FEMA, a resting place for cronies and political meddlers. Georgia is experiencing its highest unemployment rate since 1989.

What's more, state-sponsored economic development has been downgraded. Georgia government has become infected with a whiny anti-metro mentality. Worsening suburban congestion and the depleted budgets in some of the state's top-performing school districts are unmistakable signs that the Statehouse is shrugging off suburbia, the home of our hottest wealth generators.

Unless trends shift, the census reports that placed Georgia as the income leader of the South in 2003 may show us running badly behind in 2005. The ship that took so long to turn around might very well be heading back from where it came.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Write him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or e-mail bshipp@bellsouth.net. His Web site is www.billshipp.com. His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.