Let’s say we’re merely 48th in joblessness. Now what?

Last week, Gov. Nathan Deal dipped deep into the well of conservative conspiracy theory to explain the fact that, at 8.1 percent, we now have the highest unemployment rate in the country.

As Deal saw it, Georgia’s rising jobless rate may be — could be — the result of political hanky-panky in Washington against Republican governors. “I don’t know how you account for that,” Deal said. “Maybe there is some influence here that we don’t know about.” Deal’s campaign staff was a bit more explicit, citing conservative claims that during the 2012 election, the federal jobless rate had been cut from 8.1 percent to 7.8 percent to boost President Obama.

It’s hard to exaggerate how ludicrous that excuse is. It’s as if Frank Wren, fired this week as general manager of the Atlanta Braves, had tried to blame the team’s poor performance on a conspiracy among umpires to fix the games. It just ain’t so.

In this case, an inspector general’s investigation had already found no evidence whatsoever that the jobless rate had been or even could be manipulated. Even the House Oversight Committee, led by its highly partisan chairman, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, has grudgingly concluded that there was no evidence whatsoever that jobless data had ever been manipulated.

To be fair, Deal and his defenders also offer a second explanation for our state’s 50th ranking, one that is at least plausible. They point out that preliminary estimates of Georgia’s jobless rate in the summer of 2013 had turned out to be too high, and were later revised downward by as much as half a percentage point. They believe that the same may prove true of 2014 data.

So let’s assume the best-case scenario. Let’s assume that the preliminary numbers released last week are indeed too high and are later revised downward by half of a percentage point, just as Deal suggests. Should that happen, Georgia’s jobless rate would fall from 8.1 to 7.6 percent. That would tie us with Nevada for the 48th worst unemployment rate in the country, barely ahead of Rhode Island and Mississippi.

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think that changes much. Last month was the 85th consecutive month in which our jobless rate was higher than the national average, and whether we’re 50th or 48th, we’re not where we need to be.

It’s also important to note that the jobless rate is far from the only indicator of trouble. Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual survey of statewide data, and although it was overshadowed by the jobless numbers, it too had deeply troubling news:

  • In 2002, Georgia had the nation's 20th highest poverty rate. By 2012, we had the nation's seventh-highest poverty rate. Last year, we moved up to fifth. The only states with a higher poverty rate than Georgia are Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and New Mexico.
  • In 2001 and 2002, we ranked 21st in the nation in median household income. We have now fallen to 32nd. In 2001 and 2002, median household income in Georgia was $55,806 when adjusted for inflation. Last year, it was $47,829, a drop of almost $8,000. In 2001-02, we were $442 above the national median. By 2013, we were $4,421 below the national average.

I don’t care how you view those numbers: Georgia, the one-time capital of the New South, is headed in the wrong direction.