Middle Georgia incomes reach record highs

mstucka@macon.comDecember 16, 2012 

Jabril Muhammad is an upbeat 22-year-old Westside High School graduate who has thrived during these tough economic times.

“It’s been pretty much a rapid elevator up,” he said in a phone interview from Geico, his employer. “A great majority of my advancement came in my first two years. In my first two years I had about five promotions, and I held four different positions.”

Muhammad isn’t alone. Middle Georgians are bringing home more money than they ever have before, according to personal income statistics released recently from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Only Laurens County residents are bringing home less money than in 2008, when personal incomes often peaked before the recession hit. In 10 other Middle Georgia counties, incomes have risen by as much as $3,620 since the recession.

But those statistics may mask other pain. The personal income figures include all incomes -- largely salary, but also rental income, dividends and interest, and even outside payments such as food stamps.

Greg George, director of Macon State’s Center for Economic Analysis, said Middle Georgians have likely seen their income rise for good -- and bad reasons: more food stamps, more people back to work, more people getting raises.

“We’ve had a slow climb out of the recession, and you’d expect to see income rising with that,” he said.

And some businesses are doing well. Muhammad said he likely started at Geico in a new position, because his department -- which services car policies -- has been growing and continues to grow.

Scott Markel, a regional vice president for Geico based in Macon, said the company has hired nearly 1,100 people in 2012 and expects to hire about 1,300 next year. Many of those are people hired to new positions because of growth, rather than replacements filing vacant jobs.

“We’re pretty blessed that our company continues to grow, with good prospects for new hires,” he said.

Even that kind of success brings problems.

“Trying to figure out how in the world we’re going to hire 400 people in the first three months of 2013, it’s a business problem, but it’s a good one to have,” Markel said.

Such problems aren’t found around the region. Between 2005 and 2011, per-capita personal income in Monroe County rose from $30,105 to $39,397 -- nearly a one-third increase.

In the same time span, personal income in Wilkinson County rose from $22,901 to $28,592, meaning it started at the lowest and ended as one of the lowest incomes in an 11-county Middle Georgia region. The lowest income in the area is now Baldwin County, which rose from $24,782 in 2005 to $28,533 in 2011.

Those modest gains mask other problems.

When inflation is taken into account, Middle Georgia hasn’t overcome the recession. The average Middle Georgian’s income of $33,581 in 2011 is just slightly -- less than 1 percent -- under 2008’s figure. Figures for Bibb and Laurens counties show that when inflation is taken into account, per-capita income levels are down around $1,500 from 2008’s figures, roughly in line with the state average.

Other counties fared better -- especially Twiggs County, up more than $2,300 since 2008 when inflation is factored in.

When inflation is ignored, the economic situation looks better across the country. Personal income rose in each of the hundreds of metropolitan statistical areas in the United States in 2011, the first time that had happened since 2007, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis said in a statement.

But Middle Georgia’s future is reined to the national situation, said George, who is also an associate professor of economics at Macon State. Among them: Worries that the federal government won’t resolve negotiations over the “fiscal cliff,” a set of tax increases and budget cuts that kick in unless agreements on reducing the federal deficit bear fruit.

“There’s a lot of concern in the short term with the ‘fiscal cliff’ and whatever Washington decides,” George said. “That could have a negative impact on growth in the economy. That could reverse any minor gains we have.”

George said the economy will be hurt even if the fiscal cliff is delayed for months.

“Doing nothing is not free,” he said. “Doing nothing will extend the uncertainty of the past two or three years. We haven’t had a (federal) budget in years. Business leaders in Georgia I’ve talked to, they’re just not going to hire somebody because they don’t know how much it’s going to cost to hire that person.”

George said a failure to settle the issues would directly take money out of people’s wallets, both rich and poor, as taxes rise, entitlements get cut, and military spending gets slashed. At the same time, George said, the federal government’s overspending has helped fuel the economy. If that spending gets cut back too abruptly, it could also trigger another significant dip in the economy.

George compares the addiction to deficit spending like a heroin addiction, but says the patient has lots of other health problems that make withdrawal complicated. The correct answer would be a long-term solution.

“At least now we’re addressing our debt problem. We’ve made the first step,” he said. “We’ve acknowledged we have a problem. That’s always the first step in addressing a problem. At least in Washington they’re talking about the problem. They may not agree on how to cure it.”

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.

The Telegraph is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service