Pop quiz: Where is the most prosperous place in Georgia?

No googling allowed, but I’ll give you as many guesses as you want. First, because I can’t hear your guesses anyway, and second, because I’m certain you won’t get it right.

It’s not Sea Island, or a ritzy Buckhead neighborhood in Atlanta, or some vacation-home oasis in the mountains. Rather, it’s a spot called Midland on the northern edge of Fort Benning, just as you’re leaving Columbus on U.S. 27 Alternate toward Warm Springs.

That’s according to the Distressed Communities Index, a tool produced by the D.C.-based Economic Innovation Group to measure the relative prosperity of America’s communities. It divides America’s various ZIP codes into five quintiles: Prosperous, Comfortable, Mid-tier, At Risk and Distressed. (The ZIP code for Midland is 31820.)

Now, it’s important to note that “prosperous” is not necessarily the same thing as “wealthy.” The Index uses seven equally weighted factors: adults without a high school diploma; unoccupied housing units; working-age adults who are unemployed; poverty rate; ratio of local median household income to that of the state; rate of job growth or loss; and rate of businesses opening or closing. Only one of those is directly tied to income or wealth, but the others certainly indicate whether an area is prospering.

Income disparities have been at the center of much discussion lately, nationally and in Georgia. There’s the lack of income mobility in Atlanta. There’s also the wide gap between the rapid growth in the metro region and the rest of the state, particularly rural Georgia.

But it’s worth considering just how granular the variation can be. In fact, here’s a second quiz question: How far from Midland must one go to get to one of Georgia’s most distressed areas?

The answer: It’s only about a 17-mile drive around the northwestern edge of Fort Benning before you get to the 31903 ZIP code, which is roughly bisected by Victory Drive and rates as Georgia’s second-most distressed community. I could find no wider disparity in such close proximity within the Index.

While those findings surprised me, the map of Georgia overall was fairly predictable. The greatest concentration of prosperous ZIP codes covers Atlanta’s northern suburbs. The farther one goes from that area, the most distressed the community is likely to be.

There are exceptions around Georgia’s second-tier cities like Augusta, Macon and Savannah, which have a similar blend of prosperity and distress as Columbus. In between these cities are vast tracts where people are teetering on the edge between better times or worse times.

A couple of things are clear. First, Georgia has made great strides — our share of ZIP codes in distress fell from more than one-third to less than one-quarter over the past decade — but we still have a long way to go. The average state had almost twice as many prosperous ZIP codes as distressed ones; Georgia still has more distressed than prosperous. And the improvement we have seen was much more pronounced in metro Atlanta than other parts of the state.

Second, prosperity begets prosperity. Other data from the Economic Innovation Group show the top 20% of ZIP codes nationally accounted for an incredible 96% of job growth between 2000 and 2015. There’s some circular reasoning here, since job growth and unemployment are factors in the Index. Still, the prosperous areas accounted for all of the new business formation from 2007 to 2015, and the other four groups had negative cumulative job growth from 2008 to 2015.

That kind of outsized performance is alarming, no matter the calculation.

There are specific challenges in particular communities, and rural Georgia broadly speaking faces some structural obstacles to generating more prosperity. But the main thing Georgians need is more opportunity: from better educational choices, elementary school through postsecondary, to better access to capital, which has all but dried up in many smaller communities.

Taken together, improving opportunity is a task that’s far from complete.

Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation: www.georgiapolicy.org.

More from this section

My next two contributions to this Murphy Center space will deal with local entrepreneurs, entrepreneurship in our community and at the College. Today’s column will update you on our 1 Million Cups program. As part of this, you are invited to our monthly meeting on May 1, 2019. This marks the…

Value-based health care is a health care delivery model in which providers, including hospitals and physicians, are paid based on patient outcomes. Under value-based care agreements, providers are rewarded for helping patients improve their health, reduce the effects and incidence of chronic…

A few columns ago, I mentioned that a hip replacement was in my future. Well, the future has come and gone, and I have entered the recovery and rehabilitation stage. All has gone well, and I still do not know how much this has cost.

Many readers will be surprised to know that Georgia issues driver’s licenses to non-citizens who, according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), do not have legal immigration status. There is no difference in the driver/ID credentials issued to these lucky illeg…

Well, we can pretty much stick a fork in the Year of our Lord 2018. By the time you are through roasting chestnuts on an open fire or eating the last of the leftover turkey, 2019 will come knocking on the door.