Middle Georgia incomes climbing out of the Great Recession

Average personal incomes in Middle Georgia are typically still climbing out of the recession, new estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis suggest.

Across all of Georgia, some of the places with the lowest incomes are improving at some of the fastest rates. Greg George, director of Middle Georgia State College’s Center for Economic Analysis, said the rising average per-capita incomes most likely are because more people are getting more work, not because they’re getting raises.

“The main drive is probably people going from underemployed and unemployed to employed,” George said.

The statistics show average personal income growth has stalled or staggered over recent years in places like Laurens, Bleckley and Wilkinson counties as the recession took hold.

The average personal income figures come from estimates of wages; money from the ownership of homes, businesses and financial assets; and transfer receipts, such as government payments.

In Bibb County, incomes hit an inflation-adjusted high of about $38,400 in 2002, before major layoffs from high-paying jobs at Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. began, Telegraph calculations show. Those figures had returned to about the same level, setting a new high in 2007, just before the recession hit. Bibb County’s average personal income in 2013 was $36,738, estimates show.

Pat Topping, senior vice president of the Macon Economic Development Commission, said the county’s unemployment rate has been falling.

“I think we’re still trying to get out of this recession,” he said. “We’ve made this progress, but we still have work to do.”

Some existing companies, such as YKK and Geico, have announced expansions while others are about to announce expansions, he said. The county also has landed new employers such as Aspen Products, Mr. Chips and Tractor Supply Co., while Kumho Tire is expected to start hiring for well-paying manufacturing jobs late next year.

“This recession was tough on us, and we are seeing some glimmer of hope,” he said.

In Baldwin County, incomes changed relatively little over two decades, but declined for much of the time period from 1995-2013. The county has dealt with the loss of several major manufacturers as well as job losses in major state-run facilities including Central State Hospital and several prisons. Average personal income was $28,781 in 2013. That’s an improvement from the $27,527 estimated for 2012, which in inflation-adjusted terms showed the county’s incomes had fallen to levels not seen since the mid-1990s.

Other counties fared rather differently. Monroe County’s average personal income has increased almost steadily in recent decades, reaching $42,808 last year. Houston County’s income growth plateaued out during the recession, but reached a near-high of $37,183 last year. Average Jones County incomes also generally increased during the recession and are now estimated at $36,097.

One unusual set of statistics comes from Twiggs County, where a declining kaolin industry has wreaked havoc. U.S. Census Bureau population estimates suggest the county lost about 40 percent of its population under 40, while the county has about a third more residents who are 60 or older.

Younger people tend to have children with them, and children tend to not work high-paying jobs. Twiggs County’s school enrollment has dropped to about half of what it was 14 years ago.

Those missing children would have helped hold down the average per-capita income. Instead, Twiggs County’s average incomes have climbed almost steadily from an inflation-adjusted $21,106 in 1995 to $34,577 in 2013.

Judy Sherling, executive director of the Development Authority of the City of Jeffersonville and of Twiggs County, said the changes with children will make the average personal income look unusual. Other demographic factors are in play, as well, she said.

Residents in Twiggs County with college educations has also increased. Just 4 percent of them had a college degree about two decades ago, up to about 11 percent now. Having a college education is the biggest factor in places with high average wages, she said.

Sherling said most of Twiggs County’s workers travel to jobs outside the county, which can pay more than some of the jobs in Twiggs County. Sherling said Academy Sports brought hundreds of jobs to its distribution center in Twiggs County beginning 2007, while other companies have expanded employment with good wages. Meanwhile, larger farmers have become more prosperous with better farming practices.

All that can help with wages generally, Sherling said, but the county still has fewer families with lower incomes and children.

George said average incomes can sometimes be misleading. Average figures can obscure how incomes are distributed across a population, and some very large incomes can throw off the average, he said.

“If Bill Gates moves to town, per-capita income might double,” George said. “Everybody in town isn’t richer.”

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.