Georgia needs a statewide vision to create an economic foundation for the future

By Maria Saporta

Georgia remains a divided state — with wide disparities in income, health and education depending on location and demography.

Although much has been said over the years about the two Georgias or the multitude of Georgias, an innovative website now exists that illustrates the differences that exist all over the state.

Georgia Forward is an organization that was created about two years ago to help unify the state and develop consensus on issues that impact its future.

As a way of providing a baseline of information, Georgia Forward has put together an interesting array of statistics that can be found on its interactive website —

For example, to see how per-capita income has changed county-by-county over the past 40 years, click here.

“We are still a very divided state, but we are not talking about what that means,” said Amir Farokhi, Georgia Forward’s executive director. “It shows how important it is to lift all boats.”

Farokhi shared some of his perspectives at the recent legislative conference organized by the United Ways of Georgia.

Take income.

In 1969, the county with the highest per capita income was DeKalb — $4,193 per person. That was 2.66 greater than the lowest earning county of Clay, where income was $1,576.

By comparison, in 2009, the county with the highest per capita income was Fulton, with $50,474 — 2.69 times the lowest earning county of Wheeler, where per capita income was $18,727.

What those numbers show is that the level of disparity between Georgia’s richest and poorest counties has remained relatively the same.

But the interactive chart, when in motion, also shows that the disparities between metropolitan and rural areas have grown.

The website also displays other enlightening statistics.

Take life expectancy. In Fayette County, the average life expectancy is 78.9 years old. But just 30 miles away in Troup County, the life expectancy is only 72.5 years old. Spalding County, which is just next to Fayette, life expectancy is 73.5 years old

In east Georgia, Columbia County has a life expectancy of 77.8 years, while the adjacent Richmond County has a life expectancy of 72.7.

These statistics do show that inequities exist. But Georgia Forward wants to take that information a step further — and build broad-based effort to move the whole state forward.

“if Georgia is going to be one of the best places in the world to live, work and learn, we have to change how policy is made and implemented,” Farokhi said. “We have to become more collaborative and visionary, across geographic and professional silos.”

Our ability to be more collaborative will determine whether we accept the status quo or whether we will become a thriving, innovative, healthy, globally competitive state.

As Farokhi sees it, the absence of a statewide vision and a commitment to problem-solving is paralyzing Georgia.

Georgia Forward believes that the best solutions are going to come not just from government or business or the civil sector but at the intersection of all three. Unless the state has all sectors participating in unison, then it is more likely to fail.

Georgia Forward already has held two annual conferences to help bring the various sectors of the state together to develop a statewide policy agenda. It is a non-partisan, geographically neutral organization that does not lobby elected leaders.

Farokhi believes Georgia should seek a symbiotic relationship between the state’s rural, urban and suburban counties. The big question facing the state is how do we “move the need” and “see improvement” in Georgia’s economic vitality.

“We need to think big,” Farokhi said. “We tend to nibble around the edges, but we need to be making big, transformational changes.”

If Georgia were a country, it would be the 27th largest economy in the world with a gross domestic product of $403 billion and a population of 9.8 million people.

Georgia has ample natural resources and an important agricultural sector. It also has a strong service sector as well as healthcare, higher education and logistics sectors. Unemployment is above 10 percent, and the state has limited public transit or commuter rail connectivity.

More than 30 percent of the population is obese and, as a result, the state has high rates of chronic diseases. Nearly 1 in 5 of Georgia’s residents lives in poverty, there’s limited access to healthcare in rural communities, and its students perform below the national average.

Compare that to Denmark, the 32nd largest economy in the world with a GDP of $309 billion and a population of 5.5 million people.

Denmark has limited natural resources, and its economy has a strong service sector services, fishing, farming, energy and a shipping industry.

The country produces 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources (compared to 17 percent in Georgia), but it is committed to producing 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050.

Denmark has vast public transit and rail. It has a high cost of living and some of the most expensive taxes in the world. But it also has a high standard of living, the smallest income inequality in the world, access to free health care and education. Unemployment is 4.1 percent, and its students perform at or above average by international standards.

Georgia needs to ask itself which path will lead to a prosperous future. The state no longer just competes with other states in country but with countries all over the world.

Farokhi believes that there is a strong regional vision in metro Atlanta, but Georgia has not developed a statewide vision.

“Without one, we won’t be able to compete with those other countries,” Farokhi said. “And we won’t be able to attract the labor and innovation that we have for the last 40 years.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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