As the calendar turns to an election year here in South Carolina, all the usual political suspects are starting to offer up all the usual political rhetoric to try to win your vote, with one side telling you that our state’s current economic forecast is cloudy with a chance of Armageddon, and the other insisting that prosperity, or at least whatever passes for it these days, is right around the corner.
All of which reminds me of the 1980 presidential debate, when Ronald Reagan famously asked the simple question, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” A majority of American voters answered with a resounding no, and Jimmy Carter was defeated for reelection.
This got me thinking about whether we really are better off – not just this year, or four years ago, but for the long term – say twenty years. So I did a little research and what I found may surprise you – it did me.
Per capita income is the most often used index of how we are doing financially on a personal level. So I looked at the data for the last 20 years from the U.S. Bureau of Business & Economic Research. These are the folks responsible for keeping track of such things, and they use the same methods and standards from year to year. In short, this is the single best, most impartial measuring stick there is to answer the question, “Are you better off?”
The most recent per capita income data was from April 2013 and it was based on 2012 data – and this is what it said about us here in South Carolina:
• In 2012, our per capita income was $34,266 and ranked 48th. The U.S. average was $42,693.
• Five years before, in 2007, we were at $31,990 and ranked 45th. The U.S. average was $39,506.
• Five years before that, in 2002, we were at $26,049 and ranked 40th. The U.S. average was $31,481.
• Five years before that, in 1997, we were at $21,287 and ranked 38th. The U.S. average was $25,654.
• And five years before that, in 1992, we were at $17,010 and ranked 43rd. The U.S. average was $20,799.
Over this 20 year period, we started out ranked 43rd, jumped up to 38th and in the last 15 years we have dropped back to 48th. Thank God for Idaho and Mississippi.
And what of South Carolina’s standing relative to the rest of the world? Here, there is more not-so-good news. The rough global equivalent of per capita income is something called PPP, or purchasing power parity, and it is used to compare and rank each of the countries of the world. In 1992, South Carolina’s per capita income would have ranked us between the Bahamas (23rd) and the United Kingdom (24th). Today, we have fallen slightly, as we rank between Israel (25th) and South Korea (26th). Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has jumped from 24th to 21st.
So, what is the bottom line? Are we better off than we were five, ten or twenty years ago? The answer is clearly “no” – not compared to other states, and not compared to the rest of the world.
And if you look at just the national numbers for the last fifteen years, the answer isn’t just no, it’s “hell no.”
Now, lots of good things are happening in our state, and we should all be proud of our accomplishments. But, going into the 2014 election year, it’s worth looking at where we are, where we’ve been, and where we appear to be headed. And, when we do, three things are clear.
We should not accept the status quo, from either political party. We are gaining speed in the wrong direction. We can do better.
Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and President of the South Carolina New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former S.C. Gov. Richard Riley.