Politico has published, online and in their magazine, their own compilation of where the 50 states and the District of Columbia rank in overall “strength.” They’ve done this in anticipation of President Obama declaring in his upcoming annual address to Congress that the state of the union is strong.

These rankings are a comparison by Politico to a similar list of state rankings compiled by the legendary pundit H.L Mencken in 1931. You can read the Politico story at www.politico.com.

If one is to believe Politico’s rankings, Georgia is 42nd on the strength list, as opposed to having been 46th (out of 48 states, plus Washington, D.C.) by Mencken’s judgment in 1931.

At first blush, it seems our state has made little progress in the last 80 years or so. Even with the addition since then of Alaska and Hawaii, Georgia remains one of the ten weakest states. Or so says Politico.

It’s here that I feel the need to interject something that may provide a degree of protection for myself if I am seen to be leveling criticism toward Georgia; or if I’m perceived to be offering a defense of the state. When I say I’m a native Georgian, I mean not just myself, but also both sides of my family. However many wacky relatives and ancestors may be lurking in the branches of my family tree, most of them are like me — they have roots running deep in the red clay of Georgia. In most instances, my family goes back at least five generations here, and often more than that.

If some have wondered why the Vinings/Smyrna area of Cobb County is so important to me, they need only examine the 1910 census report. It’s that document in which my great-great-grandfather Nichols listed as his home a family farm that is now a part of I-285 and Atlanta Road, but which was then called Lemons, Ga. I’m sure he never could have imagined that this humble rural area would someday be the home of a major league baseball park. Likely neither could the grandfather of longtime IA and James writer/editor Gary Reese, who was also listed in that very same 1910 Lemons/Vinings, Ga census report.

 

Other family members, whether my parents or their parents, or even their parents or their parents, hailed from scattered other places in what is now the greater Atlanta region. My great-great-grandfather Towery was from Gainesville and — heaven forbid like me—was a lawyer by trained profession.

Among other ‘kinfolk’ were a Henry County farmer and a Milton County (now Fulton) farmer.

All in all, our family must have seen it all around these parts. And based on what Politico reports, it hasn’t been much to look at.

In one sense, Politico’s words are fighting words. But in another sense, they are words that deserve a greater resolve to fight to improve our state’s future.

Let’s start with the fighting words: The Politico rankings use assorted categories, including statistics for wealth per capita, employment, home ownership and so on. Combined, these criteria account for their numerical rankings of the states.

A look at the various lists actually shows just how far we have come since Mencken had Georgia just a couple of spots from the bottom among states.

In most categories our state was ranked somewhere in the 30s among the 50 states and D.C. In many areas we rank higher.

Consider that the rural, dirt-road and dirt-poor state of all of my great grandfathers, both paternal and maternal, is now among the top 25 states for highest percentage of jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math. I’m sure that would have seemed an inconceivable prediction for the future of Georgia back in their time.

As for crime rate, Georgia has climbed to the 30th lowest, with states such as California, Texas Illinois joining the usual Deep South suspects as high-crime states.

And people are fatter in states as diverse as Indiana and Ohio than they are in the Peach State, says Politico.

The culprits in bringing Georgia down into the bottom ten states overall were a handful of rankings; among them the reading scores of our students (41st), and our high-school graduation rate (also 41st).

Another category that damaged Georgia’s standing — “income equality”– was interesting for a different reason.

Now here’s a shocker. Income inequality is President Obama’s big theme for the year.

This ranking was an eye-opener because the oft-praised Massachusetts and California ranked worse than Georgia did.

But the methodology for this category was so terse — “Rank/State/GINI coefficient” — that my simple Georgia mind couldn’t figure it out.

Steady now. Here’s where I invoke my Georgia roots in the name of criticizing our state. The truth is that we do indeed continue to lag in education, and there likely is a wide gap when it comes to income equality. Arguably an improvement in education would lead to a decrease in inequality of income.

For decades in Georgia, the solution to poor education has been to throw dollar bills at the problem. Sometimes it has even worked. For example, Politico’s rankings put Georgia 36th among states for math. That’s an improvement over years past.

But the state has spent too many years talking about education, with not enough to show for it. We will remain near the bottom as long as so many fail to learn to read at an early age, and as long as so many who have no hope of making it to college are not at a younger age channeled into meaningful trade or technical training.

Our current methods of teaching reading are, at best, 20th-century in a world that’s well into the 21st. And the idea that anyone should be allowed to drop out of school before age 18 suggests an agrarian approach to schooling that is no longer relevant.

All of that said, one has to wonder why “income equality” is now one of the critical elements in determining the strength of a state. Would a state be considered wholly a strong one if everyone in it was provided the exact same amount of money? Or if that state made it a government policy to take heavily from those who work and achieve, and give heavily to those who can’t or won’t do the same?

Let’s be clear about the Georgia of Mencken’s era. It was basically dirt poor. A look at the census records at the time shows that many families were lucky if their child was in school at all, and especially if they actually graduated. Back then, many the head of a household admitted that they had little or no formal education. And reading levels were pitiful.

Whether Georgia’s overall strength ranking in Politico should have been among the 30-somethings is arguable. (And I would argue ‘yes.’)

Even at 42nd out of 51, there is cause for pride in our state. Georgia has moved ahead of several states since Mencken weighed in. And by Politico’s standards, we outrank other states in the Deep South, save only North Carolina and Florida. And many consider those two states to be demographically a combination of New York, the Midwest and the South.

The new statistics reflect both the good and the bad of metro-Atlanta having climbed from regional status in the 1930s to that of an internationally known metropolis of almost six million people. If one state did more than others to pull itself up from the bottom and move forward from the low rankings of 1931, it appears Georgia may have been it.

But if our goal is to tackle issues such as reading levels and graduation rates, we must continue to use the weapons of modern technology to do so, and quickly. Money alone won’t tackle the problem.

And if our goal is “income equality,” it seems likely that such a lofty ambition will not be easily attained. Given that ideas such as free enterprise continue to flourish in the state, while a utopian economic system based on need instead of achievement does not, we likely will continue to land in a bottom-ten ranking for so-called income equality.

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