Picture a series of households lined up, ordered by how much money they bring home.
The household in the middle of that pack should be middle class, and all across Georgia, those middle-class incomes have been hit.
In Bibb County, the median household income has lost nearly one dollar of every four, part of a decline that’s been underway for the past 25 years.
A Telegraph analysis of U.S. Census Bureau estimates shows that the middle class in most midstate counties was suffering well before the most recent recession started.
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One of the few exceptions was Houston County, where median household incomes peaked in 2008. But the pain remains. The Census Bureau estimated that Houston County’s 2013 median household income was down more than $10,000 from the peak, to about $53,000 in today’s money. That’s a loss of more than 16 percent.
In Bibb County, the long-term losses are even greater. Bibb County’s middle class household was drawing the equivalent of about $49,200 back in 1989. By 2013, however, it had fallen to about $37,300. That’s down 24.1 percent.
The Telegraph previously found that per capita incomes generally had been climbing out of the recession. On an inflation-adjusted basis, those average incomes have been rising and moving back toward highs.
The median household incomes, however, are different. Rather than taking the total of income and dividing it by the number of people, median household incomes look at actual households and try to find the value where half the households make more money and the other half make less.
Not a single Georgia county saw median household incomes hit a new high in 2013. When inflation is taken into account, those middle-class households were worse off than they had been.
Most counties have long been declining. Across Georgia, two-thirds of counties saw their peaks in 1998 or 2000, The Telegraph analysis shows. In a few cases, incomes peaked in the first year on record, 1979, which indicates declines of more than three decades.
The data aren’t perfect. Some are estimates drawn from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates program, which doesn’t report every year. The Telegraph also evaluated samples used in the 1980 and 1990 census, which didn’t cover every household. The Telegraph adjusted those figures for inflation.
Households, too, have changed and have been getting somewhat smaller across the nation. Smaller households would have fewer potential breadwinners, lowering the median household income.
Numbers suggest the economic hurt is widespread. A Telegraph analysis of Internal Revenue Service data in 2010 found that families leaving Bibb County took $6,400 more in annual income with them than the families arriving in Bibb County.
More recent numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau suggest that at the bottom of the income scale, the pain is increasing quickly.
In Bibb County, 17.2 percent of residents were living in poverty in 2000. In 2013, the poverty rate was at a high of 29.2 percent. The figures were even worse for Bibb County’s youth. Their poverty rate had dropped to 25.5 percent in 2000 but hit a high of 44.6 percent in 2013. Instead of barely one-quarter of Bibb County children living in poverty, something close to half were.
But the challenges are not limited to Bibb County. Jones County median household incomes, for example, have declined by about $8,500 since 1989, a loss of about 14 percent. Jones County’s poverty rate also increased substantially over the years, with 16.3 percent of residents overall (and 23 percent of the children) living in poverty in 2013.
Houston County’s overall poverty rate had fallen some in 2013, to 15.4 percent -- the second highest year on record. Its rate of children living in poverty also was the second highest on record, at 21.9 percent, though that figure was down substantially from the 25.3 percent the year before.
Some communities have fared relatively well. Monroe County’s median household income peaked in 2005 at about $59,400. The 2013 figure was just 6.5 percent below that amount, the seventh-best recovery in the state.
On the other side in Middle Georgia is Baldwin County, where median household incomes declined from about $48,600 to about $36,300, a decline of 25.3 percent since 1989. The community has lost high-profile manufacturers, as well as numerous state prison and mental hospital jobs.
The size of Baldwin County’s decline from peak median household income is worse than Bibb County’s, and the state’s eighth-worst loss from peak income. Baldwin County’s poverty rate has exactly doubled since 1999, when 15.9 percent of the population lived in poverty. It’s now 31.8 percent. Baldwin County’s rate of children living in poverty nearly doubled over the years and now sits at 40.2 percent.
An analysis of the data underscores two important points: In communities where the middle class is hit hard by the economy, the poorest are hit even harder. And poor children are hit hardest of all.
To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.