If It Were a State, South Georgia Might Be the Poorest in the Nation

The fall line divides Georgia into the haves in the North and the have-nots in the South. Credit: Cleonard1973 / Wikimedia Commons

Every once in a while, some South Georgia politicians get a wild hair and propose breaking away from North Georgia and Metro Atlanta. In 2018, the Pierce County Republican Party included the idea on that year’s county primary ballot. In a surprising display of good sense, Pierce County Republican voters shot down the idea by more than a two-to-one vote.

Even so, to help explain the trouble in God’s country, I am hereby creating the Great State of South Georgia. It’s made up of 88 counties and is home to 2.8 million people. It’s bordered on the north by the gnat line (referred to in polite circles as the “fall line”) that runs roughly from Columbus on the Alabama border through Macon and over to Augusta on the South Carolina border. It is made up largely of sparsely populated rural counties, but also includes several significant cities, including the aforementioned Columbus, Macon and Augusta, as well as Savannah, Brunswick, Dublin, Valdosta and Albany, among others.

We’ll start this exercise by looking at two economic measures—per capita income (PCI) and the poverty rate. These are two of the three metrics the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) uses to measure and rank county-level economic performance. The third is unemployment, and I’ll get to that in a future column.

PCI has long been regarded as a key gauge of economic strength, and improving it was once an economic development priority for Georgia’s leaders. Frankly, it’s no longer clear whether that’s the case. Between 1982–2002, Georgia gained more ground on the national PCI average than 48 of the other 49 states; only Vermont did better. Between 2002–2021, we lost more ground than 48 of the other 49 states; only Delaware did worse.  

The Great State of South Georgia bore the brunt of that collapse. In 2021, the latest year for which we have data, South Georgia’s PCI was $45,068. That’s less than Mississippi and pretty close to the bottom of the national pile. Wheeler County merits a special shoutout. It finished last out of 3,113 counties with an average PCI of $24,241. The PCI for the 71 counties north of the gnat line was $59,615. Tops in the state (and 33rd in the nation) was Fulton County with an average PCI of $102,074.

There is, we should acknowledge, some cause for hope and maybe even a little optimism. Hyundai Motor Group’s decision to build a massive new electric vehicle manufacturing plant in Bryan County will no doubt have a beneficial effect on that area’s economy, and there are already signs that it may establish Georgia as a key player in the rapidly evolving EV industry.  

But it will take more than a single Hyundai facility, no matter how large, to produce a meaningful impact across South Georgia. As things stand now, hugely disproportionate shares of Georgia’s population and geography are mired at the bottom of the nation’s economic ladder, and that’s especially true in the southern half of the state. 

On to poverty rates. Here the picture is arguably even grimmer. Of the 88 counties in the Great State of South Georgia, 73 fell into the bottom national quartile for poverty. The vast majority of those—65 counties—had 2021 poverty rates of 20% or higher, according to Census Bureau data. Six topped 30% poverty rates; at the bottom of this list was Calhoun County, at 34%.

Let me put these South Georgia numbers into a national perspective. First, PCI: 71 of the Great State of South Georgia’s 88 counties fell into the bottom national quartile for this metric, and those 71 counties are home to 1.6 million people. No other state has more counties in the bottom national quartile for PCI, and only three have more people in their bottom quartile counties: Texas at 3.45 million, Florida at 1.94 million and Alabama at 1.65 million.

Second, poverty: Only Texas had more counties in the bottom national quartile for poverty than South Georgia: 78 to 73. And only six actual states have more people living in those bottom quartile counties than South Georgia’s 1.9 million: Texas, New York, California, Louisiana, Michigan and Alabama.

Bottom line, our hypothetical Great State of South Georgia would begin life as one of the most economically distressed states in the nation, with roughly two-thirds of its population seemingly stuck at the bottom of the nation’s economic ladder. It’ll take a lot more than one Hyundai plant to fix that.

Charles Hayslett is the author of the long-running blog. He is also the Scholar in Residence at the Center for Middle Georgia Studies at Middle Georgia State University. The views expressed in his columns are his own and are not necessarily those of the center or the university.