The economic picture for Georgia — like that of much of the country — is mixed at best, economists say.
On the positive side, financial burdens have eased some for Georgians in the first quarter of 2012. The employment picture has steadily improved in the state in recent months, some studies show.
But that hasn’t been enough to keep the state from a second-place ranking for consumer financial distress according to a list compiled by a national nonprofit looking at factors affecting people’s pocketbooks.
Still, despite skepticism about the likelihood for rapid improvement in the state and the nation, at least one Georgia economist says Gainesville could be one of the bright spots for the state’s economic growth.
At the beginning of 2012, Georgia improved with the rest of the U.S. in consumer financial distress, according to CredAbility, a nonprofit credit counseling agency that tracks financial burdens on households across the U.S.
The index looks to measure the pressures on consumers with their household budgets, housing situations, employment, credit and net worth.
Despite some gains, Georgia ranked the second most financially distressed. Nevada ranked first and Michigan, Mississippi and Florida rounded out the top five. In the last quarter of 2011, Georgia ranked third and Michigan was second.
Housing woes, unemployment and low consumer credit were the categories in which Georgia scored the lowest.
Following that trend, the Atlanta metro area ranked the fourth most financially distressed on the list of cities, behind Tampa-St. Petersburg, Detroit and Miami-Fort Lauderdale.
Hall County was lumped into that Atlanta metro column, said John McCosh, a spokesman for CredAbility, based in Atlanta.
McCosh said most states and regions that are lagging behind now are those that were having some of the most success before the recession hit, particularly in real estate.
“They grew so fast during the boom years, so they have the most difficult time pulling out of it,” he said.
Once the housing bubbles burst in those area, it’s not just home prices that suffered. Those who were working construction, for instance, don’t have anything to build.
“We seem to still be in this kind of flat state depending on which measure you’re looking at,” McCosh said. “The sum total of all those things is we’re kind of stuck.”
But even if Gainesville is lumped in with the rest of the Atlanta region, there is a silver lining.
In his quarterly economic forecast in May, Rajeev Dhawan, director of the Economic Forecasting Center at Georgia State University in Atlanta, projected Gainesville to enjoy one of the highest job growth rates in the state.
Employment, he said, will grow by 2.2 percent this year and 2.5 percent in 2013.
If that happens, those gains would be impressive considering reports of disappointing national job growth, particularly with Friday’s report by the U.S. Department of Labor of a slight increase in unemployment.
Propelling Gainesville’s job growth is a trend toward small manufacturing companies offering high tech jobs in the area, Dhawan said. Even if these companies bring in a relatively small number of jobs, just a few hundred new positions makes a big difference in the employment rate for a community Gainesville’s size.
“This kind of re-emergence is the reason behind Gainesville’s growth,” Dhawan said. “This is expected to continue.”
Lately, unemployment rates have remained lower in Gainesville than in Atlanta and the rest of the state, according to the Georgia Department of Labor.
In April, preliminary numbers had Gainesville’s unemployment at 6.9 percent, the lowest since November 2008 when rates were at 6.6 percent. The Atlanta area was at 8.5 percent. Seasonally adjusted rates for the state of Georgia were 8.9 percent.
Meanwhile, local Realtors have reported home sales are outperforming those from last year heading into the typically busy summer months.
More jobs may be the reason why some in local real estate say Hall County’s market is improving.
“When the jobs come back, it will help the housing market,” Dhawan said.
That’s because people moving to the area with new jobs are more likely to buy homes.
Dhawan and other economists, such as Emory University Professor Ray Hill, are predicting a slow national recovery for the rest of the year with uncertainty in some national and global factors, including the presidential election, a slowdown in China’s economy and the European debt crisis.
“It’s an OK outlook, but not one that’s looking to improve very fast,” said Hill, who teaches economics.
Next year, he says, the nation could see more rapid improvement if everything works out just right.