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BREAKING: TIGC corrects an old math error, and it’s not good news

A couple of years ago I wrote a post on Georgia’s rural broadband efforts and swagged the likely cost of hardwiring the state’s unserved areas from the gnat line south at about a half-billion dollars.

In the interest of responsible journalism, I must now report that I was wrong.

Based on data now available from state and federal agencies, the cost of hardwiring unserved areas in the 100 Georgia counties that comprise Trouble in God’s Country’s Middle, Coastal and South Georgia regions will probably be in the neighborhood of $1.4 billion. Add the unserved areas in the northern half of the state and you’re looking at a total of about $2.3 billion.

In my defense, I was working with some fairly limited data when I took that first swing at ballparking the cost of wiring rural Georgia for broadband internet service. Basically, I combined some testimony to the House Rural Development Council — to the effect that it would cost about $40,000 a mile to wire rural Georgia — with county-level road-mile data from the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT), made some charitably conservative assumptions and came up with a figure in the neighborhood of $500 million.

Since then, a couple of things have happened that give us a stronger basis for estimating the real costs of hardwiring the state’s rural regions.

One was the creation of the Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative (GBDI), which was spawned by the work of the House Rural Development Council and is now part of the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA). One of its major accomplishments so far has been the development of what’s been billed as a first-of-its-kind map identifying parts of the state that are unserved by terrestrial internet service capable of delivering download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and uploads of at least 3 Mbps.

The Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative’s map showing areas with and without access to 25/3 Mbps broadband service. The darker gold areas have service, the lighter areas do not. For access to the live map, click here.

Study the GBDI map at right and you could be forgiven for thinking that about half of Georgia doesn’t have access to that level of internet service.

But that’s land mass. Extract the county-level data from the map and you might be surprised to learn that, even in most rural areas, a large majority of the GBDI “locations” already have access to 25/3 service. Statewide, GBDI puts the number of “unserved” locations at nearly 507,000 out of a total of just under 5 million locationsd, a little over 10 percent.

The problem is worse, of course, in rural Georgia. Nearly 312,000 of the state’s unserved locations are in the 100 counties that comprise TIGC’s Middle, Coastal and South Georgia counties — 17.4 percent of the total locations in those counties. In contrast, only about 1.5 percent of the locations in TIGC’s 12 Metro Atlanta counties are unserved.

So that gives us a sense of the magnitude of the task. Now to the question of cost.

Thanks to a new program funded by Congress in 2019 and run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), we’ve now got a pretty good baseline to use in projecting what this is going to cost. Dubbed ReConnect, the USDA program is now in its second year of operation and has funded 75 projects that are supposed to provide at least 25/3 Mbps service to more than 168,000 locations across the country at a total cost (including local matching funds) of more than $760 million.

Here in Georgia, there have been four awards so far. Independent telephone companies in Ellijay, Darien, Pembroke and, most recently, parts of three west Georgia counties (Carroll, Heard and Troup) are now plowing a combined total of $27.1 million into providing 25/3 service to a grand total of 6,159 locations.

That works out to $4,404 per location, which is actually a little better than the national ReConnect average of just over $4,500 per location.

The obvious follow-up question here is whether it’s worth that kind of cost to wire unserved areas of rural Georgia, especially those in serious, sustained decline.

First, let’s acknowledge the obvious. Access to broadband internet service is essential to modern life, no matter where you live. It is the latter-day equivalent of electricity and telephone service, and both were supported by an array of public policies and funding mechanisms designed to provide them to the broadest swath of the population possible. Somehow, the same principle should apply today.

But “somehow” is a big word, with a lot of wiggle room, and these are different times. Maybe private-sector players will eventually step into some rural areas that show signs of growth, but for the moment it seems they have decided it’s not worth their time or money to plow capital into rural areas that are poverty stricken and sparsely populated.

And while that puts the onus on the public sector, I would submit that, even there, it’s reasonable to have a discussion about what constitutes a prudent use of tax funds in areas that are losing population and suffering a long-running economic decline. At what point are we simply throwing good money after bad?

Take, for example, tiny Baker County, in deep southwest Georgia. Between 2013 and 2018, its population fell 7.7 percent, from 3,351 people to 3,092, according to the Census Bureau, and its annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) shrunk 14.6 percent, from just under $108 million to less than $88 million, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA).

According to the GBDI map, there are a total of 1,799 locations in the county, and only eight of them have access to 25/3 broadband. Based on the ReConnect cost data, it would cost right at $8 million to wire those 1,791 unserved buildings and provide service to just under 3,100 Georgians living in a county with a shrinking economy. Is that a good expenditure of public funds that are, by definition, coming out of somebody else’s pocket?

Altogether there are 21 small rural counties (population 30,000 or less) that saw both their populations and their economies shrink in the five years from 2013 to 2018 — 20 from the gnat line south and one in northern Georgia. The GBDI map puts the number of unserved locations in those counties at 63,970; at the ReConnect average of $4,500 apiece, it would cost just under $288 million to wire all those locations.

I’m ordinarily pretty liberal when it comes to plowing public money into important infrastructure projects, but I’ll have to admit I’m struggling to see even a publc-sector business case for investing this kind of state or federal money in areas that are shedding population and economic activity.

This is not to write off Baker County or its similarly-distressed rural Georgia cousins, let alone the citizens who live there, but it is to suggest that their problems require a multi-faceted response. Spending millions on high-speed broadband won’t do any good if there’s nobody left to use it.

(c) Trouble in God’s Country 2020


Tiny Taliaferro County leads the state in fighting the virus

Taliaferro County hardly ever ranks anywhere close to the top of any list of Georgia’s 159 counties. A small, poverty-stricken patch of dirt that straddles I-20 a couple of counties east of Augusta, it’s home to about 1,600 people and not much else.

The Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) puts its economy in 144th place in its latest Job Tax Credit Rankings. In its health rankings for Georgia counties, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation lists Taliaferro 123rd for health outcomes and 137th for health factors.

For the moment, though, Taliaferro County is arguably outperforming all 158 other Georgia counties in one important category: holding Covid-19 at bay.

As of today’s Covid-19 report from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH), it’s the only county in the state that still hasn’t suffered a death at the hands of the virus, which has claimed more than 6,000 lives statewide. Taliaferro also has the third-best confirmed case rate in the state.

This is, frankly, something of a very pleasant surprise. The AJC’s Jim Galloway meandered out to Taliaferro County six months ago and did a nice piece on a nervy, bleeding-edge decision by the local school superintendent, Allen Fort, to shut down all the county’s schools and send his students home for what he said would be a long haul.

At the time, the bug was just getting started. As Galloway noted in his column, fewer than 75 cases had been reported in Fulton, DeKalb and Cobb counties — combined. Neither Georgia state government nor the White House had offered any clear guidance, let alone told folks to hunker down and shelter in place.

Fort told Galloway he took his cue from a couple of major economic decisions. The NCAA had announced the day before that it was cancelling its 2020 Final Four, which was to have been held about 100 miles west in Atlanta, and that morning, Augusta National, 50 or so miles to the east, postponed the 2020 Master’s Tournament.

If the virus was dangerous enough to prompt the NCAA and the Master’s to step back from hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, Fort thought, maybe his little school system ought to take it seriously too.

Still, it was far from clear that Fort’s strategy would work. The county is one of the poorest in the state and almost bereft of healthcare services. Its first, last and only line of defense against the virus was a small community health clinic that operated only a few days a week.

Further, while Taliaferro is located pretty much dead center in the middle of nowhere, it nonetheless straddles I-20 and therefore might have been a sitting duck for the virus. In his column, Galloway wrote that he had wished the clinic staff well, but he seemed worried. ” … it’s not likely to be a fair fight,” he wrote.

Maybe not, but so far Taliaferro is holding its own.

In addition to the fact that it hasn’t given up any deaths, the county has so far had only 22 of the nearly 300,000 in-state Covid-19 cases recorded so far.

With a population of a little over 1,600, its case rate today was 1,348 per 100,000 people. That was the third lowest case rate in the state, behind only Long County (1,260 cases per 100,000) and Glascock (1,289). The state case rate today was 2,749 cases per 100,000 people, more than double Taliaferro’s.

It’s also worth noting that Taliaferro is doing better than all five of its contiguous neighbors — Wilkes, Oglethorpe, Greene, Hancock and Warren counties. Combined, those five counties had reported 1,651 confirmed cases and had a combined case rate of 2,878 per 100,000 as of today’s report. They had also suffered a collective total of 87 deaths.

The Covid-19 pandemic is, of course, far from over, and Taliaferro County’s fortunes could easily change. If the infection does find its way into the little county, it could wreak havoc before anybody realized it was there.

Hopefully that won’t happen, and, for the moment at least, it seems worth taking a minute to recognize a gutsy decision that almost certainly saved some lives.

With Covid-19, size matters: Death rate in 99 smallest counties is double that of four largest

In my last couple of TIGC posts, I’ve reported that Covid-19 case and death rates are now higher in counties that sided with Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican, over his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams in Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election.

That resulted in a handful of unkind comments from readers who apparently felt it was impolite to apply such a political lens to Covid-19 data, so I decided to take an entirely apolitical swing at the numbers.

If anything, the results are even more striking. Where coping with Covid-19 is concerned, size does seem to matter: the bigger the better.

For this analysis, I’ve divided the state’s 159 counties into six population groupings — more than a half-million people (four counties); between 200,000 and 500,000 (seven counties); between 100,000 and 200,000 (14); between 60,000 and 100,000 (14); between 30,000 and 60,000 (21), and less than 30,000 (99). Then I pulled today’s county-specific Covid-19 data from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) website and sorted it into the appropriate buckets.

The truth is, I’ve probably put an unnecessarily fine point on the population groupings. There’s not a great deal of difference in the results for the three largest groups of counties — in other words, counties with populations of 100,000 or more.

As the popuation groupings get smaller, though, significant differences do emerge. Taking the worst beating, collectively, are the 99 counties with populations of fewer than 30,000 people. That group of counties had the highest Covid-19 case rates and far and away the highest Covid-19 death rates, as this table shows.

The big takeaway from this is that the 99 smallest counties have a combined Covid-19 death rate that is more than double that of the four largest counties — 102 deaths per 100,000 people in the under-30,000 counties versus 47.6 deaths per 100,000 in the four largest counties.

Indeed, as the population grouping gets smaller, the death rate gets higher — and the same generally holds true for case rates as well.

I should probably emphasize that this analysis is based on a single day’s data — today’s — and that there can be some day-to-day fluctuations. I haven’t had time to string together a long-term day-over-day analysis, but I’ve done enough spot-checking of recent data to say that today’s data isn’t a fluke or an anomaly, it’s part of a trend.

More later.

Covid-19 case rates now slightly higher in GOP counties

We reported last week that the collective Covid-19 death rates in the largely rural and sparsely populated Georgia counties that sided with Republican Brian Kemp in the 2018 governor’s race had surpassed that of the mostly urban and densely populated counties that went for his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams.

TIGC also reported last week that the case rate trend lines were converging. We can now report that those lines have indeed crossed and that the 130 mostly rural counties that voted for Kemp and narrowly nudged him into the governor’s office now have slightly higher Covid-19 case rates than the 29 counties that went for Abrams.

Based on TIGC calculations using data pulled from the Georgia Department of Public Health’s daily Covid-19 status updates, the case rate lines appear to have crossed on September 9th, as the chart below shows. They had run at nearly identical rates for several days before that and have been steadily separating ever since.

This chart shows recent trends in confirmed Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people in the 130 counties that voted for Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican, versus the 29 that sided with his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams, in the 2018 governor’s race.

The case rate trend lines have been separating slowly but steadily since they crossed about a week ago. The table below shows the case rates — the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people — as the numbers tightened up around September 6th, crossed on the 9th, and then continued to separate through the 17th.

Those trends can of course change. All it would take is the emergence of a new Covid-19 hotspot in one of the state’s larger urban — and typically Democratic — counties.

For the moment, though, the current data would appear to put to rest early thinking that Covid-19 would do more damage in heavily populated urban areas. While it clearly struck first in such areas — including, of course, Metro Atlanta — it has since found its way into rural areas. Indeed, the interesection of the case and death rate trendlines coincides generally with the virus’s Sherman-like march to the sea across the state’s rural east-central and southeastern counties.

Covid-19 death rate in Kemp counties now tops that in Abrams counties; case rate trend lines also converging

Here’s a little breaking news on the coronavirus front: The Covid-19 death rate is now higher, collectively, in the Georgia counties that voted for Governor Brian Kemp in 2018 than in those that went for his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams. What’s more, the difference in the rate of confirmed cases is narrowing dramatically.

This is a little bit of a surprise. Early on, the virus hit densely-populated urban Democratic precincts much harder than remote, sparsely-populated Republican communities, and there was a good bit of credible speculation that the gap between the two might never fully close.

The New York Times took a deep dive into national data in late May and posited that while case and death rates were rising in conservative areas, it wasn’t “on a scale that would close the gap in the virus’s impact on red and blue counties.”

That’s no longer true in Georgia. The Covid-19 death rate in the 130 mostly rural counties carried by Kemp in 2018 squeaked past that of the 29 largely urban counties that went for Abrams on August 25th.

The Kemp and Abrams death rate trend lines converged through the middle part of August. They were nearly identical by August 24th — 47.52 deaths per 100,000 people in the Abrams counties versus 47.43 in the Kemp counties. The next day, the lines crossed — 48.37 deaths per 100,000 people in the Abrams counties versus 48.52 in the Kemp counties — and they’ve been separating, fairly rapidly, ever since, as the graph above shows.

The Abrams counties have so far suffered more overall deaths than the Kemp counties: 3,095 out of population of 5.67 million versus 2,833 out of a population of 4.95 million. But even that may be changing. Since the Kemp and Abrams death rate trendlines crossed on August 25th, there have been 785 Covid-19 deaths in Georgia. Of those, 353 occurred in the Abrams counties while 432 took place in Kemp country.

While the Abrams counties are still reporting higher rates of confirmed Covid-19 cases than the Kemp counties, those trend lines are also converging. On August 25th — the day the death rate trend lines crossed — the 29 Abrams counties had a combined confirmed case rate of 2316.7 cases per 100,000 while the combined case rate for the 130 Kemp counties was 2178.6, a difference of 6.3 percent. By September 8th, the difference was down to 1.9 percent — 2529.9 cases per 100,000 people for the Abrams counties versus 2483.2 for the Kemp counties.

Put another way, during that August 25-September 8 period, the Abrams counties reported a total of 12,089 new confirmed Covid-19 cases while the Kemp counties reported 15,069 new cases.

These trends can, of course, shift. The recent death and case rate trends appear to have been driven largely by the virus’s Sherman-like march across east-central and southeast Georgia, which is heavily rural and went overwhelmingly for Kemp. All it would take to alter — indeed, reverse — these patterns would be a major outbreak in one or more of the major urban counties.

Still, the current data and trends would appear to put to rest the early thinking that the virus would be satisfied with feasting on Democrats in densely-populated urban areas. It took it a while, but it finally found its way to virtually every corner of the state’s rural areas, which have older, less healthy populations and frailer healthcare delivery systems. Those Republican hunting grounds now appear to be just as fruitful for Covid-19 as the big Democratic cities.

For 2nd year, nearly half of Georgia’s counties report more deaths than births

The Georgia Department of Public Health earlier this week published mortality data for 2019 and TIGC can now report that, for the second year in a row, right at half the state’s 159 counties reported more deaths than births.

For 2018, as TIGC reported a year ago, 79 counties reported more deaths than births; for 2019, 78 counties reported more deaths than births and one county — Treutlen — broke even, with 77 births and 77 deaths.

Only a few of the 78 counties would not be considered rural, either by dint of a small population or remote location. Perhaps most notably, Fayette County, on the southern edge of Metro Atlanta, and Floyd County, a major population and economic center in northwest Georgia, both found themselves in negative territory for the second year in a row. Fayette County has long been recognized as a popular area for retirees and has an older-than-average population; the reasons for Floyd County’s slippage are less apparent.

Other mid-sized but remotely located counties whose birth-to-death ratio has gone negative in recent years include Baldwin County (Milledgeville) and Sumter County (Americus).

This trend of increasing numbers of counties reporting more deaths than births is one first noticed and reported on by Trouble in God’s Country several years ago. My initial focus had been on the economic, educational and civic death of Georgia’s rural areas, but I decided one day to explore whether some counties might literally be dying. DPH’s publicly available OASIS database includes county-level birth and death data going back to 1994 and makes this analysis pretty simple.

What I found, though, was stunning, and very much a part of the story of rural Georgia’s decline, as the column chart below shows. Beginning roughly with onset of the Great Recession, the number of counties reporting more deaths than births began to tick up a fairly steady pace. While the Great Recession is generally considered to be over, the number of counties reporting more deaths than births has continued to rise.

We won’t know until at least next year whether the fact that this year’s number barely changed from 2018 represents a brief plateau or perhaps the beginning of a reversal of this trend. It’s also worth noting that none of the data through 2019 reflects the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which of course began in early 2020. The virus took a particularly heavy toll on southwest Georgia in its earliest months and is now rampaging through east-central and southeast Georgia.

Overall, Georgia continues to produce more births than deaths, but the statewide ratio has been tightening steadily for the past decade. For the first 15 of the 25 years for which DPH has county-level birth and death data, the statewide birth-to-death ratio floated along at about 2:1. It peaked in 2007 with 2.23 births for every death and has been narrowing ever since. For 2019, Georgia posted 1.47 births for every death, down from 1.48 in 2018.

Obviously, these two trends — the tightening of the state’s overall birth-to-death ratio and the increase in the number of counties with more deaths than births — are mirror images pulled from the same bucket of data. One story in the 2019 data, as noted above, is that the state may have hit, at least temporarily, a plateau of sorts. While the number of counties in negative territory dropped by one, the state’s overall birth-to-death ratio tightened ever so slightly, by one one-hundredth of a point. In other words, stasis in both analyses.

But another story to be pulled from this data is in the regional differences. As the tables below shows, it puts yet another spotlight on the profound population shift away from rural Georgia and toward Metro Atlanta (defined by TIGC as a 12-county region).

These tables show the actual numbers of births and deaths — and the percentages of each — for Trouble in God’s Country’s five regions.

One takeaway from the regional analysis emerges from a comparison of the 99 counties that make up Middle and South Georgia with the 12-county Metro Atlanta region. While Middle and South Georgia combined produced only 60 percent as many births as Metro Atlanta, they very nearly matched Metro Atlanta is deaths: 30,488 for Middle and South Georgia versus 30,589 for Metro Atlanta.

In closing, as a teaser of sorts, I’ll point out that there are obviously racial and political dimensions to this data. While 78 counties recorded more overall deaths than births, 103 counties reported more White deaths than White births; only 48 counties reported more Black deaths than Black births.

Statewide, the White birth-to-death ratio peaked at 1.92:1 in 2006 and has fallen steadily since then — to 1.18:1 in 2019. The Black birth-to-death ratio hit its high point a year later, in 2007, at 2.77:1 and has since fallen to 1.87:1 in 2019. I’ll try to flesh out the political implications of these trends in a future post.

A quick dive into local Covid-19 data underlying AJC report on Georgia’s worst-in-nation performance

This morning’s AJC led with a blockbuster story based on an apparently confidential White House report that gave Georgia the dubious honor of generating the biggest increase in new Covid-19 cases in the nation last week.

According to the AJC, the White House report said Georgia produced about 216 new cases for every 100,000 people for the week that ended this past Friday, August 14th. The paper quoted the report as saying that figure was “about double” the national average.

What the story didn’t include (probably because it wasn’t detailed in the White House report) was any kind of breakdown on how the bug is affecting different parts of the state.

Not to worry. Trouble in God’s Country is here to help.

First, a quick caveat. As I’ve noted before, my arithmetic produces slightly different results than those found in the Georgia Department of Public Health’s daily Covid-19 updates. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that I usually work only with in-state numbers, those attributable to specific counties, and omit cases DPH classifies as out-of-state or unknown.

The bigger reason, though, is that we’re using slightly different population numbers to calculate the case rates, which is a little weird. I pull my county population numbers from DPH’s public OASIS database, and I know those numbers are taken directly from the Census Bureau. I don’t know exactly where DPH’s Covid-related population data comes from, but it’s slightly different from the ones I’ve got.

Still, the numbers are, as the old saying goes, close enough for both government work and semi-retired, part-time bloggers.

In this case, my arithmetic puts the state’s case rate for the week of August 7 through August 14 at 205.2 per 100,000 people (versus the 216 figure cited in the AJC article). The total number of new in-state cases added during that period was 21,791.

Working with those numbers, we can begin to offer some observations about how different types and areas of the state are behaving now that we’re nearly six months into the pandemic.

Indeed, the factoid included in the AJC story that Georgia’s state-level increase of a little over 200 cases per 100,000 people is about double the national average is helpful: it gives us a point of reference for judging county-level and regional Covid-19 behavior not just within the state, but against the nation. It’s not a pretty picture.

Some 146 of Georgia’s 159 counties posted case rates of more than 100 — roughly the national average, based on the AJC’s reporting — for the August 7-August 14 period. But there’s a wide span within that group.

For that week, Appling County, located in deep southeast Georgia and home to fewer than 20,000 people, posted the most horrific numbers: a one-week case rate of 728.8. But it was hardly alone in that region. Indeed, one of the things the Covid-19 data suggests is that the bug acts and moves on what appears to be a regional basis.

This map below highlights 37 Georgia counties that posted case rates of at least 300 per 100,000 people from August 7 through August 14. As usual, the darker the color, the higher the increase in case rates.

Twenty-four of those counties make up an inter-connected chain of counties that now runs well over 200 miles from Lincoln County on the north end south to Clinch County on the Florida line.

Most of the rest of the counties posting exceptionally high case-rate increases — three times the national average — are scattered loosely around the state, although there do appear to be multi-county clusters in the southwest corner of the state and in northwest Georgia.

Clearly, rural areas of the state that were spared major infection rates in the early stages of the pandemic are now under siege.

Also apparent from this map (and the data) is that Metro Atlanta and the southwest Georgia cluster surrounding Albany and Dougherty County, both of which were savaged early in the pandemic, are so far avoiding the worst levels of increases now afflicting rural areas across east-central and southeast Georgia.

The table below lists all the counties that suffered case rate increases of at least 300 per 100,000 people from August 7 through August 14. The sort is by the case-rate increase, from highest to lowest.

Fifteen of these counties posted one-week case rate increases of 400 or more — in other words, roughly four times the national average, based on the AJC reporting.

I’ll try to loop back and flesh out a more complete regional analysis in the next couple of days.

Updating TIGC’s Gwinnett County-South Georgia comparison, Part II: Education

A week or so ago I published a post that looked at South Georgia’s population trends.  This was the first of what will likely be four or more posts updating a December 2016 comparison between my 56-county South Georgia region and Gwinnett County alone.  For the past few days I’ve been mucking around in various buckets of education data for the purpose of updating that part of the comparison.

I swear I’ve been looking for some good news, but there’s just not much.  The best I could come up with is that South Georgia, as a region, has seen a significant reduction in its population of adults (aged 25 and over) who never finished high school, and my best guess is that’s probably because a lot of poorly educated, older people died. Whatever the reason, estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey indicate that the number of South Georgia’s adult population who never finished high school dropped by more than 16,000 from the Bureau’s 2009-2013 average to its most recent 2014-2018 estimates. 

South Georgia also made a little headway in growing its percentage of college graduates.  From the 2009-2013 period to 2014-2018, it pushed that share of its adult population from 14.9 percent to 16.3 percent.  By comparison, Gwinnett County grew its portion of college grads from 33.9 percent to 36.1 percent.

Indeed, college graduates comprise the largest share of Gwinnett County’s adult population while, in South Georgia, high school graduates comprise the largest single cohort: 36.3 percent of the region’s adults held a high school diploma as of the 2014-2018 period.  As another point of comparison, Gwinnett County is home to nearly three times as many college graduates as high school dropouts (206,823 versus 70,656) while high school dropouts still outnumber college graduates across South Georgia (146,100 dropouts versus 123,424 college grads). 

This column chart shows the population for each educational level — less than high school, high school diploma only, some college, and college graduate — in Gwinnett County and South Georgia.

Only six South Georgia counties can boast having more college graduates than adults who never finished high school: Bulloch, Lee, Lowndes, Thomas, Dougherty and Long.  Sixteen have at least twice as many high school dropouts as college graduates, and four of those – Quitman, Telfair, Echols, and Atkinson – had more than three times as many dropouts as college graduates.

It’s possible to argue, of course, that given the nature of the economy across South Georgia, college degrees aren’t as important as they are in Gwinnett County – that, indeed, the more important metric is whether a sufficient share of the population has graduated from high school or perhaps has gotten at least some college education.  And in fact South Georgia has made some improvement in both those categories. 

But over half its adult population – 55.6 percent – still has no more than a high school diploma, while nearly two-thirds of Gwinnett County’s population – 64.9 percent – has at least some college. 

A second education metric I follow is annual fall admissions to University System of Georgia (USG) institutions.  This might be viewed as the pipeline of college-educated talent most communities arguably need to prosper, and it produced one of the biggest surprises I found in that first round of research back in 2016.

Through the first decade of this century, South Georgia was still sending substantially more high school graduates to USG institutions than Gwinnett County.  But that began to change in about 2009.  South Georgia’s admissions trajectory stalled while Gwinnett County’s continued to chug upward for a couple of years.  They were basically tied in 2011 – 5,498 for South Georgia versus 5,493 for Gwinnett County.

But since then (as the chart below shows), Gwinnett County – even with a smaller population – has sent larger numbers to USG colleges and universities.  The trend lines, however, are interesting, and I’ve come to believe they reflect one of the long-term impacts of the Great Recession on different parts of the state. 

South Georgia’s admissions slumped pretty much immediately in 2009 and began what has turned into a decade-long slide; Gwinnett County’s upward trajectory was slowed and basically morphed into a plateau.  It enjoyed a one-year spike in 2017 before falling back to its plateau level in 2018.

The Gwinnett-South Georgia contrast becomes even starker when you focus on total enrollment at the state’s two flagship universities, the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech.  While South Georgia was still sending more freshmen to all 30-plus University System colleges combined through 2011, the 56-county region’s total enrollment at UGA and Tech had long since fallen behind Gwinnett County’s, as this chart illustrates.

In 2008, nine of the 56 counties in the TIGC South Georgia region didn’t have a single student enrolled at Georgia Tech, according to data pulled from the institution’s annual Fact Book; by 2018, that number was up to 19 — and those numbers seem certain to get worse.

In 2018, South Georgia couldn’t muster but 41 high school graduates to send as freshmen to Georgia Tech and 220 to send to the University of Georgia. Thirty-six of the 56 South Georgia counties didn’t send a single freshman to Tech, and 14 posted goose eggs at UGA. Gwinnett County, meanwhile, with about 80 percent of South Georgia’s population, sent 224 new freshmen to Tech and 627 to UGA.

Covid-19 now hitting rural Georgia harder than urban areas; east-central counties seeing biggest case-rate increases

Over the weekend, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator, told CNN the Covid-19 plague’s assault on rural areas is now on a par with its toll on more densely-populated urban areas.

That’s certainly true here in Georgia. In fact, case rates are currently growing faster in rural counties than in major metropolitan centers, and rural areas by and large now have higher case rates.

To put this in perspective, Georgia is now one of 21 states accorded the dubious honor of being a Covid-19 “red zone” by Dr. Birx’s White House task force. That group recently began assigning that designation to states that meet one of two criteria — first, that the number of cases per 100,000 people rises by 100 or more over a seven-day period, or, second, that the “positivity rate” is higher than 10 percent.

Georgia makes the cut on both counts. Its cases and case rates have been rising relentlessly pretty much since the pandemic started, and its positivity rate has been floating above 10 percent for several weeks. Tuesday’s report (August 4th) from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) puts the cumulative positivity rate at 11 percent and the rate for the batch of tests reported yesterday at 12.7 percent.

As of Tuesday’s report, 141 of the state’s 159 counties qualified as red zones in their own right, as the map to the left is intended to show. Each of the shaded counties posted increases of at least 100 cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days; the darker the shade, the bigger the increase. (The blank spots on the map represent the 18 counties that held their case rate increases under the 100-per-100,000-people threshold over the past seven days.)

One key story for Trouble in God’s Country is that Covid-19 is continuing to move tsunami-like across rural east-central Georgia. TIGC first reported in early July that the bug seemed to have finished savaging southwest Georgia and appeared to be moving, Sherman-like, eastward to the sea. The latest results make it clear that march is still underway.

While 141 of Georgia’s 159 counties posted increases of at least 100 per 100,000 people between July 28 and August 4, only 29 of those counties hit what might be considered stratospheric increases of 300 new cases per 100,000 in that same period.

As map below shows, 15 of those 29 counties are part of a connected chain covering much of east-central Georgia, an area that largely seeemed to escape the bug in its earlier phases. It runs more than 150 miles from Richmond County at its northern end to Atkinson County at the southernmost point.

And the case rates in most of the counties in that chain now dwarf those in Metro Atlanta. Such counties as Jeff Davis, Jefferson, Wayne, Toombs and Johnson, among others, have case rates of well over 2,000 per 100,000 people. The county with the highest case rate in Metro Atlanta, Gwinnett, has a current case rate of 1,874.18. (On the map, the number shown beneath each county’s name is the number of cases per 100,000 people that each county’s case rate increased between July 28 and August 4.)

Indeed, generally speaking, the smaller a county’s population, the bigger its recent increase in Covid-19 cases. As the table below shows, the 118 counties with populations of less than 50,000 people posted bigger increases in case rates than any of the other groups of counties with larger populations.

Interestingly, it was the groups of mid-sized groups of counties — 16 counties with populations between 50,000 and 100,000 — that posted the smallest increases (although those increases still qualified them for “red zone” status). There is no doubt a variety of reasons for this, but a couple of possibilities suggest themselves. One is that the group includes counties — like Dougherty and Floyd, among others — that suffered most of their damage in the early days of the pandemic, and their recent increases are relatively smaller. A second may be that many of these counties — Barrow, Walton, Jackson, Coweta and others — are in various stages of evolving from rural to exurban or suburban counties and have reached a stage where they can attract and sustain stronger healthcare delivery systems.

Revisiting the Gwinnett County-South Georgia comparison (Part I)

I’ve made reference in at least one earlier post to my poor and often meandering research habits.  Well, I’ve done it again.  Recently I started thinking about updating a post I published in December 2016 comparing 56 South Georgia counties to Gwinnett County alone and somehow wound up researching global birth rates.

It’s really not that big a leap.  In that 2016 piece I didn’t spend much time on population trends.  I used the relative populations of South Georgia and Gwinnett as a jumping off point to compare their performance in economics, education, health status and other areas. 

This time around, I found myself digging into county-level and regional population trends and pretty quickly got to the nut of the problem.

South Georgia needs more babies.

Actually, the problem is even more basic than that: it needs more young people who can produce babies.

Truth is, much of the planet has been slacking off in the procreation department for a while now.  I would argue that this isn’t altogether a bad thing (because, I-285), but, globally, it’s gotten to be a head-scratcher and has a lot of demographers in a dither; one even called it an “epidemic.” 

Things reached a point several years ago, according to The Washington Post, that school children in Denmark were being taught how to get pregnant – not only that, but that having children was patriotic.  A Danish travel agency launched “Do it for Denmark,” an ad campaign that encouraged couples to take vacations and conceive children.

When a Swedish couple has a new baby, the Post reported, either the mother or father can take off 480 days and still receive 80 percent of their previous salaries.  France and Germany pay a monthly allowance to families with children under the age of 20, and France grants a host of other discounts (including for public transportation and movie theaters) to the country’s children.

Now, of course, all this smacks just a teeny bit of socialism, so it’s probably going to be a tough sell in South Georgia.  And given Georgia’s fondness for abstinence-only sex education, I’m not sure teaching South Georgia students how to have children has much of a chance either, although I don’t really think it’s necessary; I’m pretty sure they’ve been figuring that out on their own for a while now.

The real problem is they’re leaving South Georgia and doing it somewhere else.  Between 2014 and 2019, the 56 counties that make up Trouble in God’s Country’s South Georgia region saw an exodus of just over 5,000 men and women between the prime family-building ages of 18 and 35.  The perfectly predictable result of this trend is that the region is producing fewer babies.  South Georgia’s baby crop peaked in 2007 at just under 18,000 and has been on a steady downhill slide ever since; in 2019, the number of new births was 14,153 (which was actually up a little from the year before). 

Another part of South Georgia’s demographic problem is that its population is getting older and more and more of them are dying (or, as I once heard an actual demographer describe the situation, “aging out” of the population).  The region is still producing more births than deaths, but (as the graph below shows) those trend lines are clearly converging. 

Over the past five years, South Georgia has seen its number of births decline by an average of about 150 a year while deaths have risen by nearly 250 a year.  If that trend continues, the two lines will cross in 2023 – and that’s before factoring in the impact of Covid-19 on the region.

Which is likely to be considerable. Scholars at the Brookings Institution issued a report in June forecasting that Covid-19 might cut total births in the U.S. by 500,000.

In 2018 (the last year for which we have death data), 28 of the 56 South Georgia counties reported more deaths than births. That’s a new high and a continuation of a trend that started about a decade ago.  In 2009, only a half-dozen South Georgia counties were suffering such a deficit. Given the devastation Covid-19 has already levied in Southwest Georgia, it seems inconceivable that this trend will reverse itself anytime soon.

Having babies, of course, isn’t the only way to increase population.  The other way is to attract more people to move into an area, but South Georgia isn’t doing well on that front either.  Thirty-six of the 56 counties had smaller populations in 2019 than five years earlier.

Twenty-six South Georgia counties lost population due to both out-migration and drops in the number of births. These included such important commercial and population centers as Colquitt County (Moultrie), Dougherty County (Albany), Thomas County (Thomasville) and Tift County (Tifton).  Virtually alone among major South Georgia communities boasting even modest population increases (including a few more babies) were Lowndes County (Valdosta) and Bulloch County (Statesboro). 

As it happens, South Georgia (and no doubt much of rural America) is on the bleeding edge of this global challenge.  Demographers and public health authorities are fretting about “inverted age structures” and suggesting that, as Professor Christopher Murray of the University of Washington told futurism.com, “we’ll have to reorganize societies.”

As hyperbolic and audacious as that might sound, it’s not totally crazy. It’s pretty much what South Georgia is up against.  By any rational assessment, its current societal structures are broken.  As I’ll detail in a follow-up piece, much of its economy is shrinking, it’s losing ground educationally, and its healthcare delivery system was fragile even before Covid-19 hit. As I was finishing up this post, the AJC reported that the only hospital in tiny Randolph County, which has the fourth-highest Covid-19 case rate in the state, would close in 90 days.

The question, of course, is what to do and how to go about it.  As it happens, the Republican- and rural-dominated House Rural Development Council, casting about a couple of years ago for strategies to revitalize their communities, actually stumbled toward a quasi-socialistic, semi-European idea: they proposed granting a $6,000 tax credit to anybody who would move to rural Georgia.  That idea went nowhere, however, after House Speaker David Ralston politely declared it DOA soon after it was floated.

Maybe they need to revive the idea but go bigger, and with a different twist: offer cash payments and/or tax credits not just to anybody, but to young people who a.) have certain educational credentials and/or needed skill sets and b.) are willing to move and start families in select rural Georgia communities that still have a pulse. In other words, strategically recolonize dying parts of the state that still have a chance at revival and rejuvenation and focus on them (and not all, in my estimation, do have such a chance).

If an idea like that still can’t get traction, they can always think about plagiarizing that Danish travel agency. 

“Do it for Dougherty” has a catchy ring to it.