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Georgia residents rank 3rd highest for financial distress
Venezuela Borders overcame unemployment with the help of a charitable organization. She said she's better now and learned from her financial distress. Georgia ranks third for consumer financial distress. - photo by Scott Rogers | The Times

Georgians continue to find themselves facing financial distress despite some signs things are getting better.

That's according to Atlanta-based nonprofit credit counseling agency CredAbility, which ranked Georgia the third highest state in financial adversity for average households in the fourth quarter of 2011.

Nevada and Mississippi are the only states to rank higher in CredAbility's Consumer Financial Distress Index.

The index attempts to check the financial pulse of American households by monitoring employment, housing, credit, net worth and household budget indicators based on data collected by federal and private industry sources.

According to the agency's statistics, Georgia's household budgets - or consumers' ability to live within their means - have been dropping. The state also has been suffering from higher than average unemployment and a poor housing market in recent years.

CredAbility spokesman John McCosh said the statistics show Georgia is getting better. The state's distress rating eased from the third to fourth quarter last year. But relative to the rest of the country, the state is still behind.

One area indicator in which Georgia has sharply declined, according to CredAbility, is household budget. That means Georgians are spending a larger portion of their income on the necessities, with less money to save or spend elsewhere.

"The household budget for the average person was squeezed in the fourth quarter, largely because the prices of gas and food have gone up," McCosh said.

Gas prices, which are only expected to continue to increase, hit Georgia hard, said Jeffrey Humphreys, director of the University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth. That's because residents in the state who do have jobs have "notoriously long commutes" without the benefits of public transportation.

Despite other factors, Humphreys said, the key to Georgia's recovery is job growth.

"The bottom line is the job losses have persisted," he said. "More than anything else, that puts stress on households."

Right now, Humphreys said, too many Georgians are unemployed or under-employed.

"We still need more jobs and more hours per job," he said.

Venezuela Borders of Gainesville knows that stress all too well. The 27-year-old single mother of four lost her job at a poultry plant last September.

After her minimal savings started to deplete, she said she found herself with some tough choices about how to spend her money.

"It was either pay for food or to keep the lights on," she said.

Borders survived that scare by turning to Gainesville's Action Ministries, which helped cover her electricity bill and also gave her some tips on budgeting.

"I know some people don't want to take charity. I have four children," she said. "You just get to that point where you have nothing else you can do."

By the end of the year, Borders had found a job.

She's now working for a private home care company helping ill and disabled residents stay in their houses.

Borders said she's doing well enough to put some money in savings. But those accounts of job recovery aren't happening fast enough for a quick recovery, said Ray Hill, a professor at Emory University specializing in macro economics.

At last count, Georgia's unemployment rate was 9.7 percent. The national rate is 8.6 percent. Economists say a healthy rate is 5 to 6 percent. Hill points to the recession in the early 1980s when unemployment was more than 6 percent for seven consecutive years. In the current recession, he said, it's only been 3 1/2 years of unemployment at more than 6 percent. But without a steeper rise in unemployment, Georgia and other states are heading for the same lingering rates.

Hill said jobs will only return if businesses start to feel better about the direction of the economy.

"The biggest driver of going into a recession or coming out of one is business investment," he said. "They have got start to get optimistic about the outlook in the economy to move beyond the pace it is today. Otherwise it will be a very slow recovery."

Humphreys of the Selig Center predicts there will be only small job growth in Georgia this year - still the first growth in several years.

But the following year, he said, could be a good determinant of whether the state and the country will see substantial recovery.

Humphreys is optimistic it will.

"I think 2013 will be the year for households to heal in terms of financial distress," he said.