Letter from Georgia — From the August 2015 issue

What Recovery?

Two years in a town where the Great Recession never ended

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I came into town on a highway from Atlanta, the shining symbol of a young and prosperous and growing New South. It was February 2013 and I was making the first of several trips to Albany, Georgia, in the southwestern part of the state, sixty miles from the Alabama border. Jimmy Carter’s evangelism took root here. It is the home Ray Charles evokes when he says Georgia’s on his mind. Stately antebellum plantations line the highway into town, rare historic gems that still stand because this area avoided direct fire during the Civil War.

Today, millionaires and billionaires host lavish retreats in the mansions and hunt quail on the former farmland that surrounds them. The celebrity chef Paula Deen is one of Albany’s most famous daughters; when she got herself into trouble waxing nostalgic about plantation-style dinners with black servants, she was probably talking about her experiences in these houses. To be fair, jobs on the plantations are coveted by some of Albany’s black residents. Ask around and some people will tell you that they pay better than most other businesses in the area.

As the Great Recession came to a close, the roll call of the nation’s poorest cities was topped by familiar Rust Belt names — Reading, Pennsylvania; Flint, Michigan; Bloomington, Indiana. Most of these cities had been intensely poor for decades, but Albany, which tied Bloomington for third place on the list in 2010, was different. Its collapse was recent — and fast. Between 2007 and 2010, Albany’s poverty rate jumped 12 points, to a record high of 39.9 percent. More than two thirds of Albany’s 76,000 residents are black, and since 2010, their poverty rate has climbed even higher, to nearly 42 percent.

Faded decal, Albany, Georgia. All photographs by Will Steacy

Faded decal, Albany, Georgia. All photographs by Will Steacy

[*] Correction: The official poverty line for a two-adult, two-child family is $23,550, not less than $12,000.

Albany is, of course, only a more extreme example of something that’s happening across the country. Not counting the elderly, among whom Social Security has driven a sharp and lasting decline in poverty, a greater share of Americans are poor today than at any time since the 1960s. In the United States in 2013, 45.3 million people lived below the official poverty line, with incomes of less than $12,000 a year for a two-adult, two-child family.[*] A third of them were children. Twenty million people live in what economists call deep poverty, with incomes of less than half the official poverty line. That’s almost three times the number of people who lived in deep poverty in 1976.

Historically, the poverty rate has tracked the overall economy, but that’s no longer true. The period between the 2001 and 2007 recessions was the first expansionary business cycle on record in which the poverty rate increased, according to an Economic Policy Institute analysis of Census Bureau data. It’s also the first expansionary cycle on record during which incomes in the middle quintile fell. A return to the prerecession economy won’t alter the trend because, as Albany’s story shows, the problems began with the boom, not the bust.

Even if the economy continues to grow, the effects of the past decade will linger. “While the poverty rate changes, the rate of escaping from poverty doesn’t,” says Austin Nichols, formerly a labor economist at the Urban Institute. “When you have a shock of poverty, because of recessions, say, and poverty goes up, it has a very long-term impact.” Absent a significant intervention, the 14.7 million kids who live in poverty today are extremely likely to become poor adults.

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is the features editor of The Nation and a reporting fellow of the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute.

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