By Maria Saporta

There’s one statistic that overshadows all others when it comes to measuring Georgia’s economic strength nationally.

That statistic is how Georgia’s per capita income compares to the national average per capita income.

In 2010, Georgia’s per capita income was $34,531 while the national per capita income was 39,791. That means that Georgians made 87 percent of the average income of the country as a whole.

For George Berry, improving Georgia’s per capita income is the key to the state’s future. Berry is a former commissioner of the Georgia Department of Industry, Trade and Tourism (now Georgia Department of Economic Development) who served in that role during the administration of Gov. Joe Frank Harris in the 1980s.

“You can put it in very simple terms — we don’t make enough money,” Berry said. “This has been our quintessential challenge over the years.”

Back in 1940, Georgians only earned 49 percent of the national per capita income. That percentage rose steadily until 1995 to 1997 when it reached a high watermark of 95 percent.

Since then, Georgia’s per capita income has dropped back down to 87 percent of the national average — back to where it was in 1983 and 1984.

Berry said the state needs to figure out “why we are sliding in relation to the rest of the country,” and then try to reverse that trend.

Annie Hunt Burriss actually began her economic development career working for Berry as one of the department’s first female project managers.

After three-decades working in economic development and higher education in Georgia, Burriss is now CEO of Prince William campus at George Mason University in Virginia.

Last week, she gave a farewell analysis to a group of leaders at All Saints Episcopal Church on how Georgia is faring competitively in economic development.

“I think Atlanta is at a real turning point, and Georgia is at a real turning point,” Burriss said. “It’s no longer about cheap land and cheap labor. There’s cheaper land, and there’s cheaper labor.”

Burriss said that when the Georgia Economic Development Association started in 1957, the state was “the armpit of the country.” Then, beginning in the early 1960s, there was series of progressive leaders in Georgia and Atlanta who worked to improve the state’s economic prosperity.

“We have had a wonderful history in Georgia of focusing on infrastructure,” Burriss said “We put infrastructure where it needed to be.”

Now it feels as though the state has taken a “hiatus” in investing in infrastructure.

“The thing I fear most right now is that we have gotten fat, dumb and happy,” Burriss said. “What are we doing to innovate our economy? If you look at what our investment strategy is right now, I don’t know what it is.”

Burriss said a real turning point happened during Gov. Harris’ administration when Georgia came in second to Texas for a major high-technology research center.

“It did make Gov. Harris to start rethinking the new economy is going to be about brains,” Burriss said.

That led state to make significant investments in higher education and research initiatives, and the needle began to move in Georgia’s favor.

“Our major challenges — education and infrastructure — contribute to our economic development, which contributes to higher income,” Berry said.

And if Georgians receive a higher per capita income, it puts the state on an upward spiral.

Today, if Georgians made just the average per capita income nationally, that would put more than $5 billion in the state’s economy every year. That would lead to more tax revenues with less a need for indigent services that burdens the state’s budget.

“We would solve many, if not most, of the problems in our state if we simply earned the national average,” Berry said. “And think about how many people would be living a better life.”

After talking to Berry and Burriss, it became clear that Georgia needs to recommit to investing in infrastructure and education — all the way from early education to higher education.

As an example, Berry pointed to the City of Atlanta’s investment in Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (he was commissioner of aviation during the building of the new airport in the late 1970s and early 1980s).

The city has continued to invest in the airport, and that has reaped immeasurable economic development opportunities for the whole state.

“We need to get our mojo back,” Berry said. “Everything that comes to the governor’s desk, the question that must be asked is how does this move us to the per capita national income. People have telling us this for the history of our state. We were on the right trajectory, and now we are not.”

Georgia’s per-capita income:

(Percentage of national average)

1930: 49 percent

1935: 56 percent

1940: 56 percent

1945: 71 percent

1950: 70 percent

1955: 74 percent

1960: 74 percent

1965: 79 percent

1970: 83 percent

1975: 84 percent

1980: 83 percent

1985: 89 percent

1990: 91 percent

1995: 95 percent

2000: 94 percent

2005: 92 percent

2010: 87 percent*

Georgia’s per-capita income in 2010 was: $34,531

National per-capita income in 2010 was: $39,791

Georgia’s 2010 population: 9,815,210

Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis

Compiled by Susan Contreras

Avatar photo

Maria Saporta

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...

Join the Conversation


  1. It would be interesting to see how the Metro ATL area, both the 10 county ARC and the 26 county MSA, compares to the rest of the state in regards to per-capita income. Is this truly a Georgia-wide issue or is it a rural Georgia issue, resulting from continuing challenges of the Two Georgias.

  2. We Georgians need to provide first-class educational opportunities for all our kids. We talk like we want to do so and spend money like we were doing so. But we’re too cowardly and too lazy to do the hard work necessary to provide all our kids the educational and support services from which an educated citizenry and an affluent economy develop.
    Dr. Craig Spinks
    Georgians for Educational Excellence

    1. Part of the hard work is to shake up and streamline the educational bureaucracy we have created. Here are some facts:
      1. Enrollment in the public schools is Metro Atlanta is declining and has been for some time.
      2. As the number of students decline, the need for teachers and non-teaching staff declines.
      3. Public school employment has outpaced the public schools enrollment nationally for decades. Since 1950, the number of students has increased by 96% while the number of teaching staff has increased by 252% and the number of non-teaching personnel by 702%.
      4. Nationally since 1992, the number of students has increased by 17% while the number of teaching staff has increased by 39% and the number of non-teaching staff by 46%.
      5. All this increase in public schools employment and funding has gained us nothing – graduation rates peaked in 1969, 43 years ago.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.