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An update on TIGC’s cold case: 36 Georgia counties dead at the scene

A year ago, I stumbled onto a TIGC story that has occupied much of my attention since then. It started when I took what I thought would be a quick look at the latest county-level per capita income (PCI) data from the federal government. As part of that “quick look,” I compared Georgia’s county-level PCI performance to nearly all the other counties in the country and unexpectedly found that we have more counties and more people stuck in the bottom national PCI quartile than any other state.

That discovery pulled me into a year-long examination of barrels full of data, most of it economic, but a lot having to do with education, health, and even politics. I’ve come to think of it as an economics and political cold case, one with myriad clues scattered across geography and time.

Were TIGC a TV crime drama about cold cases, this would be the scene where the investigators stand staring (and still confused) at a huge murder board covered with a mishmash of massive spreadsheets, newspaper clips, and handwritten notes, among other materials. Thick lines would be drawn with Magic Markers to show connections amongst the various dots.

The show’s not over yet, but I can begin to report some of my findings and frame some new questions. For starters, I can offer a body count and damage assessment that I’ve been hesitant to put forward before now.

Tragically, Georgia now has 36 counties that I would declare dead at the scene and dozens more, mostly south of the gnat line, that have been badly wounded and may not make it to a hospital (if there’s still one nearby, that is).

For this post, I’ve compared the performance of Georgia’s 159 counties against roughly 3,000 other counties nationally in four economic categories — per capita income, poverty, gross domestic product per capita, and median household income. I’ve ranked all the counties in each category and then divided each set of rankings into quartiles.

My overarching finding is that Georgia has a highly disproportionate number of counties and shares of population in the bottom national quartile in each of those categories. Here’s a topline summary of what I’ve found so far:

2020 Per Capita Income: One hundred and seven Georgia counties are home to 3.454 million people who fell into the bottom national quartile of 778 counties in this category. That’s more counties and more people than any other state. By comparison, only 39 of Texas’s 254 counties and 3.449 million of its 29.21 million residents landed in the bottom quartile for PCI. Closer to home, Florida has double Georgia’s population but far fewer of its residents — 1.94 million — in this bottom quartile. Similarly, only 29 of North Carolina’s 100 counties and 1.3 million of its 10.45 million residents (only slightly smaller than Georgia’s population) landed in the bottom quartile.

As the map at right shows, most of Georgia’s land mass falls into that bottom quartile. Nationwide, 25.088 million people live in bottom quartile counties. Nearly 14 percent of those are in Georgia.

2020 Poverty: Eighty-nine Georgia counties fell into the bottom national quartile for poverty, based on the Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE) produced by U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

Here, too, Georgia had the largest number of counties in this bottom quartile, and one of the largest populations. Georgia has a total of about 2.66 million people living in these high-poverty counties.

That compares to 1.12 million people living in the 25 Florida counties that landed in this bottom national quartile and 1.62 North Carolinians in that state’s 32 bottom quartile counties.

2020 Median Household Income: The picture here is similar to the PCI and poverty maps. In this case, 76 Georgia counties fell into the bottom national quartile, and there is obviously substantial overlap with the first two maps. Here as well, Georgia has more counties in this bottom national quartile than any other state.

2020 Gross Domestic Product Per Capita: This relatively new dataset from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) offers a county-level look at economic output, and here the picture is a little different. As the map at the left shows, the 81 Georgia counties in the bottom national quartile for this category tend to be more scattered across the state and are less concentrated in South Georgia. This category does, however, have a couple of things in common with the other categories: Georgia once again has more counties in this bottom national quartile than any other state, and the 2.3 million people who live in those counties are among the largest populations stuck in this bottom tier. Texas (with, again, nearly three times the population of Georgia) has 2.9 million people living in the 44 counties that fall into this bottom tier, and retiree-heavy Florida has 3.71 million people living in its 31 low-GDP-per-capita counties.

Finally, Georgia has 36 counties that made the bottom national quartile in all four of these economic categories — and these are the ones I pronounce dead at the scene.

Readers familiar with the geography of poverty and economic deprivation in Georgia will not be surprised at this last map, and, indeed, much of it calls to mind the “crescent of poverty” the late George Berry described for me in an interview a year or so before his death.

Berry had arguably the most storied public administration career in Georgia history. In the 1980s, he served under Governor Joe Frank Harris as commissioner of the Department of Industry, Trade and Tourism (now Economic Development) and was apparently the first individual in that role to emphasize raising per capita income as a key state economic development objective.

(Under Berry’s leadership, the state made remarkable progress in improving PCI through his term and for a decade afterward, only to backslide after the turn of the century.)

In our interview, however, Berry lamented that he “never came up with an answer for what I called ‘crescent of poverty’.”

Neither, obviously, has anybody else. I’ll flesh out their travails in future posts, but it’s difficult at this point to fathom how any of these counties might be resuscitated.

Watch this space for a detailed post-mortem on these 36 counties.

More TIGC lessons from the 2022 governor’s race

Further notes from a deep (and continuing) dive into the results of Georgia’s 2020 General Election:

Georgia is as divided politically as it is economically, educationally, and health-wise — and those divisions have all taken shape over roughly the same time period. I’ll start here with a little history lesson. In 1990, Lt. Governor Zell Miller, a Democrat, made his first run for governor and defeated his Republican opponent, State Senator Johnny Isakson, by 8.3 percentage points. In our just completed 2022 gubernatorial contest, incumbent Republican Brian Kemp defeated his Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams by a comparable 7.6 points.

But the way Miller and Kemp assembled their winning majorities could not have been more different — and this is important to understanding our current political environment and the challenges the state faces in reconciling the differences between Atlanta and Notlanta.

In 1990, 45 counties were decided by less than 10 percentage points. This year, only 10 counties were decided by that margin. In 1990, Miller cracked 70 percent of the vote in a grand total of seven counties. This year, Kemp hit that threshold in 90 counties, including four where he rolled up 90 percent of the vote and 31 where he broke 80 percent. One of those 80 percent counties was Miller’s native Towns County; in 1990, Towns County voters gave their native son 73.5 percent of their vote; this year, they gave Kemp 84.5 percent.

These maps offer political portraits of Georgia in 1990 and 2022. Over the course of three decades, nearly every rural county in the state switched from the Democratic Party to the GOP — but that’s not the most important takeaway from these maps.

The most important takeaway is the extent of that switch. The darker the red or blue, the higher the percentage of the vote each party received. While Democrats dominated the state in 1990, its winning map was made up largely of pastel blues while the 2022 map features darker shades of blood red throughout most of the state.

In the last century, the vast majority of the state was politically competitive. Few if any counties tilted so heavily in one direction that it made no sense for candidates from the other party to campaign in them. Generally, there were enough votes in play almost everywhere to justify at least a quick campaign stop and press interview by Democrats and Republicans alike.

Indeed, in 1980, Norman Underwood, who was seeking the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat then held by Herman Talmadge, made campaigning in every single county in the state a significant element of his platform. The only part of the pledge that seemed dubious was whether he had the logistical wherewithal and the time — in a relatively short campaign — to meander all over the state (my recollection is that he made it). This year, when Democrat Abrams started her campaign in rural Randolph County and vowed to campaign in “every region” of the state, some observers (yours truly included) wondered if that was a good use of her time and money.

I don’t know where the tipping point is, but it seems to me that communities that tilt 75 or 80 percent in either direction might be fairly regarded as hostile territory by the other party, and not worth significant campaign time or resources.

Moreover, the same forces that shape the political and electoral environment animate the policy-making thinking of legislators elected by those respective communities. I submit that’s true whether you’re considering the challenges facing rural Georgia or the hot-button cultural issues that have a way of working their way into the General Assembly.

(Case in point, stay tuned for more on Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney’s ruling that Governor Kemp’s vaunted anti-abortion “heartbeat bill” is unconstitutional under Georgia law. That drops the hottest of hot potatoes onto the Gold Dome and confronts the Republican majority in the General Assembly with a choice between trying to pass a new bill or waiting to see if the appellate courts reverse McBurney’s decision.)

Another key takeaway from last week’s election results is that Abrams lost significant ground in just about every major urban county in the state. In last week’s first hot take on the election, TIGC focused on the results in Georgia’s rural counties, where Abrams lost ground against her 2018 performance. Your humble TIGC scribe was focused on the rural trees, and in the process I overlooked the larger statewide forest: the picture was pretty much the same everywhere, and for Team Abrams that picture was not pretty.

In traditionally reliable urban climes, Abrams’s losses appear to be due first and foremost to plunging turnout numbers — drops which were largely matched by drops in her own vote totals. This was true in Metro Atlanta and in other Democratic strongholds across the state. Particularly disappointing to Abrams had to be the results of vote-rich DeKalb and Gwinnett. Compared to the 2018 governor’s race, those two counties saw their total turnout plunge by more than 15,000 votes each, and Abrams’s vote totals suffered similar drops (see table below).

The picture was much the same in deep blue fortresses along the gnat line — Muscogee, Bibb and Richmond — as well as Chatham County and elsewhere. In those four counties alone, Abrams saw her vote total versus 2018 drop nearly 17,000 votes, while Kemp fattened his total (in, again, Democratic territory) by more than 3,300 votes. In TIGC’s 12-county Metro Atlanta region, Abrams’s margin over Kemp fell from 62.2%-to-37.8% in 2018 to 59.5%-to-40.5% in this year’s election. In the process, Kemp boosted his Metro Atlanta totals by nearly 46,000 over his 2018 numbers while Abrams saw hers fall by more than 60,000.

Meanwhile, Kemp was also mopping up in Atlanta’s northern ‘burbs. Following the 2020 presidential election, I wrote that the GOP was working to build a political Maginot Line across North Georgia and that the North Georgia hills were the future home base for the state’s Republican Party. The leading edge of that line is the fast-growing suburban and exurban precincts across north Atlanta.

In recent election cycles, Democrats had made gains in those areas, winning Cobb and Gwinnett counties and cutting into GOP margins in Cherokee, Forsyth and other counties. This time around, Kemp & Company held the line and regained fair chunks of lost ground (as the table below shows). Indeed, in contrast to the situation in virtually every Democratic stronghold, voters turned out in bigger numbers in Cherokee, Forsyth and other hill country counties. There was a smidgen of good news for Abrams in these numbers: she grew her vote totals in Cherokee and Forsyth, but only by a fraction of Kemp’s gains.

And, yes, it looks like ticket-splitting really happened this time around. Incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock — being challenged by Trump-backed former UGA football star Herschel Walker — outpolled Abrams in all 159 counties and rolled up nearly 132,000 more votes than she got. That gave him a lead going into the December 6th runoff against Walker.

Stay tuned for more on what all this is likely to mean.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022

Early TIGC lessons from Tuesday’s gubernatorial election

Yesterday’s gubernatorial election showed us at least a couple of things, neither of which was particularly surprising.

The first is that there is no apparent reason for Democratic candidates to venture into rural Georgia again.

To her credit, Stacey Abrams, the party’s gubernatorial nominee for the second time, made a game effort in rural Georgia, including sparsely populated counties south of Macon. She launched her campaign in, for God’s sake, Cuthbert, Ga., and hammered incessantly on the role Medicaid Expansion could play in improving the health of rural Georgians and revitalizing local economies. Her campaign website included a thoughtful section devoted to “Rural Revitalization.” (Governor Kemp’s campaign website was, shall we say, sketchier on rural issues.)

Abrams’s reward for her efforts was that she actually did worse this year in literally every single small rural county than she did four years ago. In the 110 Georgia counties with fewer than 15,000 registered voters, incumbent Republican Brian Kemp’s advantage rose by a combined total of 3.4 points. In 2018, he carried those counties 71.5 percent-to-27.8 percent over Abrams; this year, his margin was 74.9 percent-to-24.4 percent. (If there is a silver lining for Democrats in these numbers, it’s that the total number of votes cast in small rural counties south of the gnat line actually shrunk; it dropped from just under 474,000 in 2018 to just under 460,000 this year.)

There’s also a second lesson from Tuesday’s gubernatorial results, but there are a couple of different ways to read the data.

One way to read the data is that most rural Georgians are apparently perfectly happy being dirt-poor, largely uneducated, and likely candidates for early death.

Take, for example, Brantley County. Brantley County is home to just under 15,000 people in deep southeast Georgia. It is perhaps the most Republican county in the entire state. On Tuesday it delivered 92.4 percent of its vote to Kemp. That’s a bit of an increase over the vote share it’s given to Republicans in recent presidential and gubernatorial elections, so one might fairly conclude that Brantley Countians are thrilled with the service they’re getting from the Gold Dome.

Which, I’ll have to admit, makes it a little difficult to explain the county’s economic, educational and population health metrics. Brantley County is, for instance, one of nearly 40 Georgia counties that rank in the bottom national quartile for four important gauges of economic performance — per capita income, gross domestic product per capita, poverty, and median household incomes.

More specifically, out of 3,142 counties in the United States, Brantley County ranks 3,097th for GDP per capita; 3,088th for PCI; 2,971st for Median Household Income, and 2,519th for poverty. This is based on the latest data available from various federal agencies, including the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Brantley County also ranks in the bottom national quartile for educational attainment; based on an analysis I published using ACS data, it ranks 3,017th nationally and 138th in the state.

Its population health numbers are no better. According to the latest data from County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, Brantley County ranks 130th out of Georgia’s 159 counties for health outcomes. Nationally, its premature death rate — a third-world 12,170 — ranks 2,546th out of 2,865 counties for which premature death data was available. That puts it in the bottom national quartile for that important metric as well.

I said above there are two ways to interpret this particular chunk of data. The second way is that rural Georgians are content to continue sucking on Metro Atlanta’s teat.

That is, I know, crude and uncharitable.

But I submit that it fairly frames the mounting political tension inherent in the state’s widening urban-rural divide. As rural Georgia’s population declines and its economy shrinks, its social service needs increase — and that growing burden is inevitably imposed on Metro Atlanta.

I’ve written about this in a couple of pieces, including this one, but I’ve had to rely on federal data. It was once possible to do this kind of analysis using state data, but not long after I started my TIGC research and began referencing that data, the Georgia Department of Revenue simply stopped reporting county-level state income tax data. I’m sure that was just a coincidence.

Pretty much from the dawn of time, rural Georgia’s politicians — a wily bunch if ever there was one — have outnumbered and dominated their city cousins. For now and probably through the end of this decade, that’s unlikely to change.

Governor Kemp and his GOP allies in the General Assembly — nearly all of whom are from rural districts — still hold the whip hand over Democratic lawmakers — all but a few of whom represent Metro Atlanta.

As Metro Atlanta’s population and economic muscle continue to grow, it will almost certainly grow more and more difficult for ruling Republicans to exact the taxes needed from Metro Atlanta to support the schools, roads and social services in Brantley County and other impoverished rural counties.

I won’t try to predict exactly how or when Georgia will hit an inflection point over these political and economic tensions, but it’s on the horizon. Brian Kemp’s legacy may well depend on whether he manages to somehow bridge the divide between urban and rural Georgia — or leaves office four years from now with the state’s political regions poised for what would amount to a destructive internecine war.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022

Chapter II of the Abrams interview (along with my own thoughts on Medicaid Expansion)

It’s taken me longer than I expected to finish this second write-up from my interview with Stacey Abrams, the Democratic Party’s nominee for governor of Georgia.  There are several reasons for that, but the main one is that I found myself thinking a lot about the consequences of Georgia’s refusal to accept Medicaid Expansion.  That decision is now 10 years old, so it’s ripe for an initial look-back and evaluation.

Before I get into that, though, I should note that Abrams says that implementing Medicaid Expansion would be her top priority as governor and that she believes Georgia’s political landscape has shifted enough over the past decade that even she — black, female, and Democrat — could persuade the Republican-dominated Georgia General Assembly to support the policy.

“The political realities that existed 10 years ago do not exist today,” she said.  “They have shifted in that we now see the direct economic impact.  We see the direct healthcare impact. 

“ … I very firmly believe that both the moral indignity and the economic reality has shifted the political will in the legislature,” she continued.  “But I also know as someone who served there for 11 years that it matters what the governor says she will sign and it matters what priority the governor places on the legislation put before her.”  

It’s probably also worth noting that at least one prominent Republican comes fairly close to publicly agreeing with her, at least about the chances for passage. Brian Robinson, who served as press secretary to Governor Nathan Deal when he rejected Medicaid Expansion 10 years ago, wrote in Georgia Trend a coupole of months ago that Governor Brian Kemp “can steal the issue from (Abrams) by calling a special session to expand Medicaid. It would pass, the governor would experience a net political benefit and Abrams would lose her best talking point.”

If Robinson’s Georgia Trend column was intended to nudge Kemp along and provide him with some political cover, it didn’t work. The Republican incumbent (and successor to Robinson’s former gubernatorial boss) has so far passed up probably the best free political advice he ever got.

This despite the fact that rejecting Medicaid Expansion ranks as arguably the second-worst public policy decision ever made by the leaders of Georgia state government. The worst, of course, was secession – the 1861 decision to leave the Union and go to war with Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and, of course, William Tecumseh Sherman. In rejecting Medicaid Expansion, the state’s Republican leaders didn’t slaughter their way across huge swaths of the state or set fire to entire towns, but the effect has been much the same. Communities have been decimated; people have died.

Medicaid Expansion was built into President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare legislation, known generally as the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and informally as Obamacare.  It would pour billions of dollars into the federal government program set up to provide healthcare to the nation’s poor while imposing minimal cost on the individual states. 

Republicans hated it and fought it every step of the way.  They had initially counted on the conservative U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the whole law (and were pretty much apoplectic when the court failed to do so). But they got something of a consolation prize when the high court ruled that the federal government couldn’t compel states to expand Medicaid; the Supremes held that states should have the right to reject billions of new Medicaid dollars that their own citizens were funding, and Georgia’s Republicans happily did just that.

To his credit, Nathan Deal, Georgia’s Republican governor at the time, initially left the door open to accepting Medicaid Expansion.  But that changed a short time later, when he attended the Republican National Convention in Florida and mysteriously gained new insight into the program’s fatal flaws.  No, no, no, he told reporters, Georgia would not be expanding its Medicaid program.

But even gubernatorial opposition wasn’t enough for Georgia’s GOP-controlled General Assembly.  In 2014, the state legislature passed a law (which Deal signed) stripping the governor of his power to unilaterally accept Medicaid Expansion and decreeing that the legislature would also have to approve it.  This was one more lock on the hospital door.

The early Republican rationale against Medicaid Expansion was that a.) it would cost too much in state funds to kick-start it and b.) the federal government couldn’t be counted on to sustain the level of funding required.  Both those arguments have now been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Even Robinson, the former Deal spokesman, has thrown in the towel on those arguments.  “This isn’t what we would do,” Robinson told Axios recently.  “But Republicans can’t agree on what we would do. This is the policy and the law, and it’s not going away. It would bring home hundreds of millions from a program we’re paying into already.”

The current GOP hedge is to modify the program to somehow better suit Georgia’s particular needs.  Brian Kemp, the incumbent Republican governor against whom Abrams is running, has dragged the state through a waiver process with proposals that would (according to every analysis I’ve been able to find) cost more and do less.

All this would be comical if it weren’t so tragic.  Solid calculations of the amount of money Georgians have paid into the expanded Medicaid fund are hard to come by, but back-of-the-envelope estimates of the amount Governors Deal and Kemp have passed up consistently come in at, give or take, $30 billion-with-a-b.

In the process, 14 Georgia hospitals have closed, eight of them in rural areas – including one in the North Georgia legislative district of House Speaker David Ralston.  A week or so ago, WellStar Atlanta Medical Center, one of Metro Atlanta’s two Level 1 Trauma Centers, announced it would shut down November 1st.  WellStar management took pains to say Medicaid Expansion wouldn’t have made a difference, but that proclamation was met with a certain amount of skepticism. It’s impossible to get a body count, but Georgians have no doubt died because of the refusal to accept Medicaid Expansion.

All of which brings us back, finally, to my interview with Stacey Abrams and her focus on Medicaid Expansion.  I’ll add one more comment.  I’ve now been studying the decline of rural Georgia and the state’s widening urban-rural divide for a solid decade.  A number of drivers are contributing to those unhappy trends, but the judgment I’ve come to is that the biggest single factor is the collapse of rural healthcare. Hospital closures simply signal Stage 4 of the economic cancer afflicting much of rural Georgia.

Abrams sees Medicaid Expansion as vital to improving the health of individual Georgians and the communities they live in. “My intention is to say that Medicaid Expansion is my number one priority,” she said, “because it has the most salutary effect for the largest number of Georgians and it is the single largest economic development opportunity in our state’s history. There is no other economic development issue that will create 60,000 jobs. No one has ever done that.”

Indeed, Kemp’s two biggest economic development wins — a Rivian EV plant east of Atlanta and a Hyundai Motor Group facility in Bryan County — are projected to create a combined total of 15,600 new jobs at a reported cost of $3.3 billion in tax benefits and other incentives.

Abrams applauds those sorts of economic development wins, but with caveats. “My challenge and my critique is that bringing in those jobs is not the end of the story. It is part of the story,” she says, “but too often it becomes the whole of the story — that because you can tout some massive corporation coming in that will absolutely have economic benefit, then you are absolved of responsibility for all of the places that still have nothing.”

Once Georgia’s civil war over Medicaid Expansion is finally over, the reconstruction of rural Georgia will take time and great effort. Hospitals that have been shut down can’t be reopened simply because the federal dollars begin to flow toward their communities. Local hospital authorities and other owners will have to jump through multiple state and federal hoops, a process that is likely to take several years at best.

In the meantime, as the new Medicaid dollars begin to flow, Abrams envisions using some of the shuttered hospitals as sites for clinics that could be staffed by physicians, nurses and physician assistants willing to take a chance on rural Georgia.

” … (N)o one is bringing a company to a place where they can’t see a doctor,” she says, adding elsewhere in the interview that “the infusion of (Medicaid Expansion) cash is going directly to the counties that have the greatest need because what they need are paying customers, and Medicaid expansion means that the customers that are going to show up anyway can finally afford to be there.”

The tragedy is that, for a while at least, there probably won’t be anybody there to pay.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022

Stacey Abrams does an interview with TIGC. It was pretty long. Here’s Chapter One.

A couple of months ago, I began tracking the approach our gubernatorial candidates – incumbent Republican Brian Kemp and Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams – were taking toward rural Georgia and its mounting problems.  I started doing this after reading that Abrams had launched her campaign in Cuthbert, Ga., a tiny town near the Alabama line in southwest Georgia.  My first reaction was that Abrams had somehow gotten lost, but it turns out she did this on purpose.

After that, I scoured the Kemp and Abrams campaign websites for evidence of their approach to rural Georgia and eventually reached out to the Abrams campaign with two requests.  One was to talk with the campaign team members helping to craft her rural policies.  The other was to interview Abrams herself.  Over a period of a few weeks, I had a couple of conversations about rural issues with campaign staff members and volunteers. 

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams speaks outside of closed hospital in Cuthbert, Georgia, Monday, March 14, 2022.

Then last Friday I interviewed Abrams herself, and one thing became quickly apparent: the person crafting Stacey Abrams’s rural policies was Stacey Abrams herself. 

The interview ran just under less than an hour and yielded more material than I could possibly cram into a single post.  In the course of the interview, we covered a range of topics in some depth – education, healthcare, economic development, and the complicated politics facing any Democrat trying to harvest votes in bright red rural Georgia these days.  Over the next few days, I plan to post several posts reporting on Abrams’s views on these subjects.

To open the interview, I threw her a softball.  Talk to me, I said, about how you view the complicated set of problems facing rural Georgia, and about how you would tackle them.  Does state government have the tactical tools it needs to help rural Georgia?  Or do we need a new strategic approach? 

“For me, the goal in rural Georgia is not to become Atlanta, but it is to be able to be self-sustaining and successful within the construct of being small and not having your neighbors live right on top of you.  It is the ability to have the amenities of rural with the modernity of time… “

–stacey abrams

I hereby yield the floor to Ms. Abrams.  Her answers and comments, lightly edited for length, follow.

“We have the tools,” she said, “but they’re jumbled, they are often misused, and they rarely target with the precision necessary to address the challenge…. Rural economic decline is real.  Population decline is real.  There has been insufficient funding of education.  There is a very marked lack of quality healthcare.  There is crumbling and sometimes non-existent infrastructure.  And there has been a lack of economic opportunity that has really focused more on sort of big-game hunting to bring in solutions for targeted counties. 

“But the systemic and I would say sustainable approach has been missing and what is more concerning to me is that the solutions are often premised on leveraging the poverty as opposed to solving the poverty. Meaning, that Georgia often touts economic development coming to the state by saying you don’t have to pay fair wages, that it is the low-income, low-wealth nature of our state that is used as a selling point. Which then means that those who bring jobs do not bring those kinds of jobs that could lift economic capacity, (that) could address those economic challenges…

“For me, the goal in rural Georgia is not to become Atlanta, but it is to be able to be self-sustaining and successful within the construct of being small and not having your neighbors live right on top of you.  It is the ability to have the amenities of rural with the modernity of time, and that’s what’s missing too often in a rural community.  That billions of dollars in tax revenue have been spent on essentially bringing in out-of-state corporations who come to Georgia not simply to create jobs but to create jobs that are not going to lift all of our communities, and that has a concomitant effect of also depressing those who stay and driving out those who might have stayed.

“And so, when I think about how we tackle the challenge of rural Georgia, it is to first acknowledge the repeated failures of recent administrations that have overseen a decline in real wages, a decline in economic capacity, a decline in education, a decline in healthcare, a decline in infrastructure, a decline across the board.  And to not cherry pick the winners.  

“My mission is to focus on reinvestment but also to think about placemaking.  How do we ensure that the nature of our small towns and rural communities are celebrated and that that celebration actually has economic effects? How do we revitalize? And then how do we expand? Because there are some places that have never seen opportunity.  When you go into those communities whether you’re talking about parts of Chattooga County or parts of Randolph County, where the rumor of opportunity has been about in the land for years, but never actually manifested. That’s the kind of work that I want to do (and) why my focus on rural communities is so strong.”

Here I interrupted Abrams and asked her a couple of questions.  One was whether she was suggesting it was wrong to recruit companies like Rivian and Hyundai, both of which have chosen sites in Georgia under Kemp’s watch?  Or Kia, which was recruited to west Georgia under Governor Sonny Perdue more than 15 years ago?

“Well let’s start with that.  No, it’s not a mistake to bring in jobs.  The challenge is, which jobs are you bringing in?  And what are you doing to ensure that those jobs lead to long-term economic lift for everyone?  My challenge and my critique is that bringing in those jobs is not the end of the story. It is part of the story but too often it becomes the whole of the story — that because you can tout some massive corporation coming in that will absolutely have economic benefit, then you are absolved of responsibility for all of the places that still have nothing. 

“And you get a really great headline and real-world, real-time improvement for some. But the long-term impact on others is that nothing happens. That’s deeply problematic or worse than nothing happening. Things actually continue to deteriorate. So, great for Troup County; that is fantastic. And I would never begrudge the success.  But if you’re in Early County, what happened in Troup County is not changing your outcome, and, in fact, it is now, once again, distracting from the very real needs that you have.”

The other question I asked Abrams when I interrupted her was for more of a “nuts-and-bolts” focus on how she would act on her vision for rural Georgia – and how she would pay for it.  Following are two chunks of her response, and we’ll expand on these in the next post.

Chunk One: “So here are the nuts-and-bolts… One is investment.  How do we make investment more effective and efficient? And what are those investment needs?  The major investment needs in Georgia for rural communities are education, Infrastructure, and small business.”

Chunk Two focused on financing those investments, and there’s a lot more to come here.  Basically, Abrams contends that – thanks in part to a huge influx in federal funding and a healthy state budget surplus – Georgia is now in a position to make some unprecedented investments in the present and the future.  She also identifies this as a “fundamental philosophical difference” between her and Kemp.

“Here’s the analogy I use,” she says.  “We’ve got a house (whose) roof has been leaking for years and every time there’s a hard rain, the basement floods.  And so we’re used to going up on the roof, patching the roof, and we go bail out the basement.  We finally have the money to replace the roof and fix the plumbing.  That’s what I want us to do, because if you replace the roof and fix the plumbing, it doesn’t mean the new storms won’t come, but when they come, we’re actually focused on other challenges. We’re not focused on, do we have to find more buckets for the roof?  We’ve actually solved that problem.  Using the surplus to invest in the next twenty years of Georgia opportunity is the smartest way to use this money because it does not require that we borrow from the future to solve the present.  It tells us if we invest in the present, we’re actually better situated for the future.”

We’ll flesh out these chunks – and other topics – in the next post. Watch this space.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022

A first look at some new educational attainment data for Georgia’s counties (it ain’t pretty)

Lately I’ve been wallowing around in about a dozen different datasets and working on at least as many posts without getting any of them finished. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but there are moments when I miss having an editor yelling at me. So, now I’ve started yelling at myself and have given myself firm instructions to break things down into manageable chunks and start cranking them out. Otherwise, I may have to fire myself.

Today’s manageable chunk involves educational attainment and the first installment in a broader set of county rankings. The dataset I’m working with is the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) five-year estimates for the period 2016-2020. The ACS provides estimates on 3,142 U.S. counties for the number and percentage of adults in each county who a.) never finished high school; b.) only finished high school; c.) earned some college credits and perhaps got a technical degree, and d.) earned a four-year college degree or higher.

I’ve written about educational attainment before. In my earlier efforts, I judged a county’s educational attainment levels based solely on the percentage of the adult population with a four-year college degree. I got some criticism for that — a fair complaint that my equation failed to give credit for the part of a county’s population that had gotten some technical training and was qualified and able to hold down good-paying jobs.

I decided that was legitimate criticism and have adjusted my calculation to factor in valuations for each educational attainment level, as follows:

A.) Each percentage point of the adult population over 25 that failed to finish high school is worth -1 point;

B.) Each percentage point of the adult population over 25 that only finished high school is worth 1 point;

C.) Each percentage point of the adult population over 25 that earned some college credit and perhaps got a technical degree is worth 2 points, and

D.) Each percentage point of the adult population over 25 with at least a four-year college degree is worth 3 points.

The resulting calculation yields what I call the Trouble in God’s Country Educational Attainment Index. It looks like this (with the letters — A, B, C and D — corresponding to the educational levels shown above):

TIGC EA Index = ((A x -1)+(B x 1)+(C x 2)+(D x 3))

To provide a couple of examples, Forsyth County earned Georgia’s highest TIGC EA Index for 2016-2020 period and Telfair County scored the lowest. Here’s how their numbers shook out.

County% adults with less than HS diploma% adults with HS diploma only% adults with some college/perhaps associate degree% adults with at least four-year college degreeTIGC Education Attainment IndexTIGC National EA Rank
Forsyth County6.615.323.254.8219.6639th
Telfair County28.249.715.17.072.573,132nd

Now, with all that background out of the way, here are some key takeaways from this analysis.

One is that Bill Shipp is still right. When I first took a crack at this a couple of years ago (using the now-discarded college graduates-only formula), I took a look at an old claim by Bill Shipp, a legendary former editor of The Atlanta Constitution, that Georgia without Metro Atlanta would be worse off than Mississippi. I found that Shipp was correct. The 147 counties outside TIGC’s 12-county Metro Atlanta region had a lower percentage of college graduates than Mississippi (and wasn’t far ahead of West Virginia). The Great State of Notlanta finished next to last in that ranking.

My new equation doesn’t change that. Shipp is still correct. The 147 counties that make up Notlanta still comes in next to last, behind Mississippi but ahead of West Virginia. The 12-county Great State of Atlanta ranks 3rd behind Colorado in 1st and Massachusetts in 2nd. In that previous analysis, I suggested changing the state’s name to Massassippi. I think that still holds.

This map breaks Georgia’s 159 counties down into national quartiles based on their TIGC Educational Attainment Index scores. Counties shown in dark green are in the top national quartile; those in light green are in the second quartile; those in salmon are in the third quartile, and those in dark red are in the bottom national quartile. Eighty-one Georgia counties are in the bottom national quartile.

Another key takeaway has to do with the extent to which Georgia’s out-state population centers have lost ground in educational attainment over the past half-century. I’ll get into this further in a later post, but this is important enough to throw out a little teaser: Since 1970, all the state’s major population centers outside Metro Atlanta have suffered some erosion in their educational attainment standing.

To be clear, all these counties have improved their educational attainment metrics over the past half-century — but at a pace that, with a couple of exceptions, lagged significantly behind Metro Atlanta generally and the northern suburbs in particular. In 1970, nearly all the major out-state population centers ranked among the top 15 counties in the state for educational attainment, and all have suffered some slippage in rank since then.

Among the hardest hit, Richmond County plunged from 7th place in 1970 to 48th for the 2016-2020 period while Dougherty County dropped from 9th to 50th. Floyd County, in northwest Georgia, ranked 23rd in 1970 but had fallen to 61st in the latest rankings; Tift County, on I-75 in south Georgia, has seen its ranking drop from 27th to 71st.

Of the major out-state counties that were in the top 15 in 1970, only two have managed to stay in that top tier: Clarke County, site of the University of Georgia, fell from 2nd to 7th place as large portions of its professorial population migrated to neighboring Oconee County, and Chatham County, home to a revitalized Savannah and the state’s largest port, slipped from 11th place to 13th.

This overall deterioration, I submit, is important for this reason: Any meaningful rural revitalization strategy will have to begin in these major regional population centers. I’ve thought this since fairly early in my TIGC research and haven’t found anybody who disagrees with me. You can’t throw enough money directly at impoverished rural counties to fix their problems, and if these regional centers slip into some kind of irreversible decline, they’ll take their neighboring rural counties down with them. This kind of decline is arguably already underway in Dougherty County and its rural neighbors in southwest Georgia (stay tuned for more on this).

Finally, a word or two about national rankings and their usefulness. I like to use national datasets whenever possible because they provide a good sense of how Georgia counties stack up against peer counties in other states, and they give us a good way to gauge the gap between Georgia’s top and bottom performers.

In the case of educational attainment, there are 3,093 counties between Georgia’s top-performing Forsyth County and Telfair County at the bottom. Only a handful of states have bigger gaps between their top and bottom performing counties, including Texas, Tennessee and Indiana.

Several months ago I did a good bit of research on Georgia’s per capita income performance and found that Georgia has more of its population stuck in the bottom national quartile for that metric than any other state in the country. I’ve got a little more analysis and number-crunching to do on this education data, but it looks like this picture is similar, if not quite as grim. Georgia has 81 counties in the bottom national quartile, but 44 of those are in the bottom 10 percent of U.S. counties nationally. Based on the analysis I’ve done so far, only Texas (which has more than 250 counties) has more counties in that bottom 10 percent.

Stay tuned for more on this subject. In the meantime, here’s a searchable, sortable list of Georgia’s counties and their TIGC Education Attainment indexes and rankings.

New record of 123 Georgia counties reported more deaths than births in 2021; statewide gap between births and deaths narrowest on record

The number of Georgia counties recording more deaths than births jumped again in 2021, due largely to a rising death toll that owed primarily to a combination of Covid-19 fatalities and lethal drug overdoses, according to data published Friday by the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH).

The total number of Georgia’s 159 counties reporting more deaths than births rose to 123, up from 118 in 2020. That continued a trend that started about a decade ago. Up until 2010, the number of counties reporting more deaths than births had never reached 20, but since then — with a couple of exceptions — that number has climbed steadily. Pre-Covid, it appeared to have peaked at just under 80 counties in 2018 and ’19, then jumped to 118 in 2020, the first Covid year.

Statewide, the difference in the number of births and deaths narrowed to 11,618, the smallest gap ever recorded by DPH, as the chart at right illustrates. The total number of births actually ticked up slightly, but that gain was more than wiped out by the much bigger increase in deaths.

That gain took place almost entirely in TIGC’s Metro Atlanta region and on the Georgia coast, as this table shows.

Net Births by TIGC Region: 2019-2021
 201920202021
Metro Atlanta29,09221,05018,889
Coastal Georgia3,0991,9261,269
Middle Georgia3,734-787-2,881
North Georgia3,129-1,316-2,996
South Georgia1,555-1,608-2,693
Totals40,60919,26511,618
This table shows the difference between births and deaths for all five Trouble in God’s Country regions for the past three years. That difference has shrunk across the state, and a combination of Covid-19 and drug overdoses produced more deaths than births in predominantly rural areas of Middle, North, and South Georgia starting in 2019. The net gain in births was cut in half from 2019 to 2020, then nearly in half again in 2021. (Data Source: Georgia Department of Public Health)

While the counties reporting more deaths than births were mostly sparsely-populated rural counties, more than a half-dozen significant regional counties suffered more net deaths. Floyd and Walker counties, neighbors in northwest Georgia, reported the largest numbers of net deaths, 374 and 303, respectively. Other important regional population centers reporting more deaths than births included Bibb County (280), Glynn (261), Laurens (211), Thomas (192), and Dougherty (99).

Covid-19 claimed 15,790 Georgia lives in 2021, 14 percent of the state’s total deaths and an increase of 67.2 percent over 2020’s Covid death toll of 9,406. Fatal drug overdoses totaled 2,390, a 25.3 percent increase over 2020 and a 72 percent increase over 2019.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022

Stacey Abrams pursues a risky campaign strategy

It’s increasingly clear that Stacey Abrams is pursuing a high-risk – dare I say foolhardy? – strategy in her quest for the office of Georgia governor. 

She’s actually asking voters to think.

What I haven’t been able to decide is whether this was her plan all along?  Or if she backed herself into a corner with her “inelegant” (as she later put it) statement that Georgia is “the worst state” in which to live?

Abrams, the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nominee, was complaining at an event in May about incumbent Republican Governor Brian Kemp’s incessant invocation of an economic development trade publication’s ranking of Georgia as “the top state for doing business” when she flipped that on its head and offered up the “worst state in the country to live” comment.

The statement was widely panned by Kemp and some in the media as a gaffe.  In a Facebook thread, one politically savvy friend bluntly criticized it as “a dumb, unforced error.”  Another, the estimable Bill Cotterell, long ago UPI’s man at the Georgia State Capitol and now a semi-retired political columnist for The Tallahassee Democrat, offered a more complete explanation.  “My kid might be ugly,” he said, “but you’re not going to win my vote by proving it to me.“

Probably not, but Abrams seems determined to give it her best shot – and for what it’s worth, she’s no stranger to novel political strategies.  When she first took on Kemp four years ago, she came closer to winning than any Democrat in the current millennium by running as an unapologetic progressive.  Four years earlier, Jason Carter and Michelle Nunn, progeny of the state’s two leading Democratic families, got clobbered by running GOP lite campaigns for governor and U.S. Senate.

The Kemp camp, meanwhile, has been positively and predictably gleeful in its reactions – but in the process, it may have overreached.  Kemp and his minions delighted in whacking Abrams about the head and shoulders with press statements and tweets. “Stacey Abrams may think differently,” Kemp harrumphed on Twitter, “but I believe Georgia is the best state to live, work, and raise a family.” To have done less would have been political malpractice, a felony in Georgia.

But then they took it a step further and focused their first ad of the campaign on the issue.  The 30-second spot features Abrams making her “inelegant” statement followed by a handful of headlines favorable to Kemp, after which a narrator declares that Kemp has “kept Georgia the best place to live.”

Really?   

Here, we should pause to recognize the difference in campaign strategies.  If Abrams is asking voters to think, Kemp is asking them not to; instead, he wants them to feel

For what it’s worth, his is the more traditional and time-tested approach.  Voters arguably vote their hearts far more than their heads, and appealing to their sense of pride (“best place to live”) no doubt works better in that regard than insulting them (“worst place to live”).

But Kemp’s “best place to live” claim is such an overreach that it merits a TIGC fact-check, and we give it a half-dozen Pinocchios and a pair of flaming tighty-whities.  First, the ad’s messaging logic (for lack of a better word) merits scrutiny (not to mention a belly laugh).  After spotlighting Abrams’s “worst state” comment, the ad features a montage of positive business headlines that are then used as a springboard to the “best place to live” claim.

A strong local economy is obviously critical to a community’s overall viability, but economic development doesn’t automatically lead to quality-of-life improvements and the two don’t always go hand in hand. Further, it seems worth noting that the much-vaunted business ranking from Area Development magazine focuses exclusively on business considerations and does not, as nearly as TIGC has been able to discern, factor in quality-of-life metrics.

Indeed, at least one of the key categories Area Development uses to measure and compare the 50 states seems to be at odds with improving the economic livelihood of individual Georgia citizens. More than 30 years ago, the General Assembly created a job tax credit program that measured the economic standing of Georgia’s counties by three key metrics — unemployment, poverty, and per capita income. Counties that scored poorly by those measures would be targeted with generous tax credits to encourage businesses to set up shop and create jobs in them.

Through the 1980s, ’90s, and early 2000s, Georgia made remarkable progress on arguably the most important of those three — per capita income (as TIGC has documented in previous posts, here, here, and here). Between 1980 and the end of the century, the state’s average PCI rose from 84.5 percent of the national average to 95 percent, and our rank among the 50 states climbed from 38th to 24th.

In the first decade of the current century, Georgia’s PCI performance fell back to 1980 levels; as of 2010, our average PCI was 85.6 percent of the national average and we ranked 40th among the 50 states. That reversal of fortune coincided with the transition of political power at the State Capitol from Democrat to Republican. While it’s difficult to determine cause and effect, the state’s first GOP governor in modern times, Sonny Perdue, presided during his eight years in office over a 15-place drop in the national rankings. Only one state suffered a bigger drop during that same period; Delaware fell 16 places.

Since then, the state’s PCI performance has been relatively static, bobbing up and down slightly first under Governor Nathan Deal and now under Kemp. As of the end of 2020, Kemp’s second year in office, the state’s average PCI was up to 87 percent of the national average but our rank remained 40th among the 50 states.

In Area Development’s view, that’s apparently not a bad thing. Georgia, for instance, tied with Texas for the No. 1 spot in a category called “Competitive Labor Market,” about which the magazine said, in part: “Companies choosing locations in Georgia and Texas appreciate the fact that they both have wages below the average in more than half of all other states … “

That wasn’t true when the Republicans came to power, but it certainly is now — with the ironic consequence that Georgia’s claim to being the No. 1 state for business is predicated in part on the fact that its citizens earn less on average than their counterparts in 39 other states.

Area Development, however, isn’t the only media outlet that ranks states for their overall business environment. CNBC has been doing the same thing since 2007, and Georgia generally fares well in its rankings as well; the state finished in CNBC’s Top 10 every year except 2008 and claimed 1st place in 2014.

CNBC’s methodology has evolved over time, however, and recently it added a category it calls “Life, Health & Inclusion.” Here, the news for Georgia is not so good.

CNBC even published an online sidebar under the headline “These 10 states are America’s worst places to live in 2021.” In this “Life, Health & Inclusion” category, Georgia got an “F” and finished 6th — that is, as the 6th worst place to live in America. Behind Alabama.

Let me repeat that: Behind Alabama.

The challenge for Abrams is in communicating this kind of information in ways that rile voters up without turning them off. If Kemp is trying to make voters feel good about Georgia as a place to live, Abrams should be trying to make them mad. So far, I’m not sure she’s accomplishing that. Most of her critiques (that I’ve seen) have focused on the state as a whole.

She’s up on social media, for example, with an ad that spotlights 82 Georgia counties that don’t have any OB/GYNs and another (below right) that lists the state’s poor ranking in a number of health-related categories. Whether that kind of messaging cuts through remains to be seen. I don’t have the benefit of any polling data, but I’m skeptical that statewide numbers resonate at local levels.

Take, for example, Brantley County. Located in deep southeast Georgia, Brantley County ranks near the bottom of every national economic, educational, and health analysis I’ve conducted. Nationally, it ranks in the bottom one percent of U.S. counties for per capita income, the bottom five percent for educational attainment, and the bottom 13 percent for premature death — and it’s actually doing better than a fair number of its neighboring rural Georgia counties.

But the thing that distinguishes Brantley County is that it’s the most Republican county in the entire state. In the 2016 presidential election, Brantley County voters gave Donald Trump 88 percent of their vote. In the governor’s race two years later, they went for Kemp by an even bigger margin — 91.3 percent to 8.1 percent for Abrams. In the 2020 presidential race, they sided 10-to-1 with Trump: 90.3 percent for the incumbent Republican to 9.0 percent for Joe Biden.

If voters anywhere ought to be frustrated with their economic, education, and health situations, you’d think it would be the folks in Brantley County — especially since they’ve been losing ground in recent years. In 2002, the last year a Democrat occupied the governor’s office, its average PCI was 63.3 percent of the national average; in 2020, the latest year for which data is available, Brantley’s average PCI was down to 50.4 percent of the national average.

Kemp, of course, is at no risk of losing Brantley County, but if Abrams succeeds at getting even a small fraction of voters there and in other beleaguered blood-red counties to think about something other than the party label, it just might make a difference.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022

Georgia’s 2021 births rebound slightly from the Covid dip, but still don’t match pre-Covid numbers

The Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) is up with its 2021 county-level birth data and the good news is that the number of births last year rebounded a bit from the Covid dip in 2020. The less than good news is that the rebound was well short of the 2019 numbers and it looks like the state’s long-running baby bust is continuing.

Altogether, Georgia recorded 123,971 new births in 2021 — up nearly 1,600 from 2020 but still nearly 2,300 under pre-Covid’s 2019 totals. Nearly 98 percent of those added births took place generally north of the gnat line, in TIGC’s 12-county Metro Atlanta region or its 41-county North Georgia territory. Combined, the 106 counties in Georgia’s Middle Georgia, South Georgia and Coastal Georgia regions added only 38 births to their 2020 totals.

However, those high-level numbers mask some interesting racial and localized differences — principally a big difference in the number of White and Black births. Statewide, White births were up 2,742 in 2021, an increase of 4.0 percent over 2020 and, in fact, a slight increase over 2019. Black births, however, were down 1,422, or 3.1 percent versus 2020.

This represents something of a change from recent years, although it’s impossible to know whether it’s simply a one-year anomaly or perhaps the beginning of a trend. Whites, with a larger population in Georgia, have always produced more births than Blacks, but the trend lines have moved in rough parallel throughout the quarter-century for which DPH has data — with a couple of notable exceptions.

As the graph below shows, between 1994 and 2006, the gap between White and Black births had gradually widened — peaking at about 45,000 for several years in the early 2000s. But White births declined dramatically in 2007 and ’08, probably at least partly due to the Great Recession, and then continued to decline at a slower pace for several years. Black births also declined, although not as precipitously, with the result that the difference in the number of White and Black births has narrowed dramatically in recent years. That difference peaked at 45,553 in 2004; by 2020, it had been cut in half, down to 22,563.

Of the total 123,971 births recorded in Georgia last year, just under two-thirds took place in the 53 counties that comprise TIGC’s Metro Atlanta and North Georgia regions — 81,421 versus the 42,550 in the 106 counties in TIGC’s Middle, South and Coastal Georgia regions.

This map illustrates the percentage change in the number of births for each county. The darker the green, the greater the increase; the darker the red, the greater the decline. As a region, Southwest Georgia suffered the biggest drop in the number of births, but the strip of northwest Georgia counties along the Alabama line wasn’t far behind.

These numbers — in combination with the aforementioned fact that nearly 98 percent of the births over and above 2020’s totals took place in Metro Atlanta and North Georgia — are in line with the long-running shift in population to the northern half of the state.

The 2021 numbers include some unexpected anomalies. The largest percentage increase in births, for instance, took place in tiny Montgomery County, a slice-of-pie-shaped county in southeast Georgia. The number of births there increased to 124 from 87, an increase of 37, or 42.5 percent. About three hours to the west, Calhoun County was at the opposite end of the spectrum. The number of births there fell to 31 from 52, a drop of 40.4 percent.

Another somewhat surprising development is the unbroken string of counties along the Alabama line in northwest Georgia that saw the number of births fall in 2021 — Dade, Walker, Chattooga, Floyd, Polk, Haralson, Carroll and Heard on the Alabama line, plus Whitfield and Gordon just to their east.

For several years now, TIGC has monitored county-level births and deaths and reported on the rising number of Georgia counties recording more deaths than births. Last year, that number jumped to 118 counties, up from 78 in 2019, thanks in part to Covid. The state’s county-level mortality data for 2021 should be published by DPH in July or August.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022

Will the 2022 governor’s race give us an actual debate about the trouble in God’s country?

Now that David Alfred Perdue’s bloodied political corpse has been dispatched to its final resting place at Sea Island (without, we can probably surmise, even a brief opportunity to lie in state at Mar-a-Lago), the long-awaited gubernatorial heavyweight rematch between Brian Kemp, the incumbent Republican, and Democratic Party challenger Stacey Abrams can begin in earnest. 

It’s arguably been underway for a while now.  Early last week, even before the party primaries, the Kemp camp fired a salvo at Abrams for what they and some in the media called a “gaffe” – a statement that she was weary of listening to Kemp brag about Georgia being the No. 1 state in which to do business while it was “the worst state in the country to live.”

I’ll offer a contrarian view.

Georgia as a whole may not deserve the “worst place to live” label, but Rural Georgia arguably does.  In fact, much of Republican Georgia would qualify for that title.

Abrams has since acknowledged her statement was “inelegant” but she’s doubled down on her central point – and she’s right to do so.  In the process, she may have set in motion a long-overdue gubernatorial debate over what to do about the trouble in God’s country.

Let’s take a look at the 105 rural Georgia counties* with populations of less than 35,000. 

105 Georgia counties have populations of less than 35,000 people. See below for complete list.

Combined, these counties had an average 2020 per capita income (PCI) of $39,027.  That’s just 65.6 percent of the national average** and $3,103 less than Mississippi, which is the actual state at the bottom of the nation’s 2020 PCI heap, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA).  Per capita income in the other 54 Georgia counties was $54,183, or 91 percent of the national average.

Those 105 counties, according to Census Bureau data for the years 2015-2019, were home to more high school dropouts than college graduates – 210,748 to 184,399.  Here again, rural Georgia makes Mississippi look good: the Magnolia State actually has more college graduates than high school dropouts – 435,153 versus 306,105. 

What about health status, you say?  Glad you asked.  The 2020 premature death rate for these 105 counties comes in at a third world number: 12,148 years of potential life lost before age 75 per every 100,000 people in those 105 counties.   That’s nearly 50 percent worse than the premature death rate for the rest of Georgia: 8,304. 

It’s also significantly worse than the actual states at the bottom of the national list.  According to the latest data from County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, Mississippi is dead last with a YPLL 75 rate of 11,324 and Alabama, third from the bottom, has a comparatively stellar rate of 10,350.  (Here, I should acknowledge I’m comparing slightly different sizes of apples.  I’m pulling the Georgia county data from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) while relying on County Health Rankings for other state-level data.  The numbers will vary slightly, but not a great deal.)

(For what it’s worth, I’d suggest Abrams should directly critique the underpinnings of the state’s much-vaunted claim to being the No. 1 state in which to do business, but I’ll save that for another post.)

It’s also worth noting, as I suggested above, that Rural Georgia is overwhelmingly Republican.  Those 105 counties combined gave Kemp 71 percent of their vote to 28 percent for Abrams in the 2018 governor’s race, and things haven’t changed much since then.  They went 70 percent for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

On the basis of those numbers alone, Abrams could be forgiven if she didn’t bother campaigning or investing campaign resources outside Metro Atlanta and other Democratic strongholds around the state.  Every minute or dollar she spends trying to win a new vote in, say, Glascock County is a minute or dollar she won’t have to turn out a sure vote in Metro Atlanta.

But she is at least making a show of going after Rural Georgia’s votes.  She actually kicked off her campaign in Cuthbert, Ga.  I’ve been to Cuthbert.  It’s not easy to get there.  One route suggested by Google Maps is to cross over into Alabama, drive south to Eufaula, and turn left.

Further, she has branded her campaign “One Georgia” and regularly peppers her public remarks with references to rural Georgia.  Her campaign website includes a decent section on “Rural Revitalization” that spells out pledges to expand Medicaid (which Kemp and his Republican predecessor, Nathan Deal, have refused to do, despite polls showing broad public support for it), invest in rural broadband and overhaul rural education funding formulas.

Still, it has to be said that her bet on rural Georgia is a long shot and that Kemp goes into the campaign as a prohibitive favorite.  I could find no comparable language on rural policy on his campaign website, but his administration’s recent economic development wins (Rivian, Aspen Aerogels, and now Hyundai) may be a more than sufficient response.  Kemp also begins the General Election campaign as a political giant-killer.  He beat Perdue by a stunning 52 percentage points and knee-capped Donald J. Trump in the process, perhaps crippling him not just in Georgia but nationally.

But even if Abrams fails to cut into the GOP’s rural stronghold and comes up short again, she appears certain to force a long-overdue political discussion about the trouble in God’s country – and that will be no small public service.

*Georgia counties with populations of fewer than 35,000 people: Appling Atkinson Bacon Baker Banks Ben Hill Berrien Bleckley Brantley Brooks Burke Butts Calhoun Candler Charlton Chattahoochee Chattooga Clay Clinch Cook Crawford Crisp Dade Dawson Decatur Dodge Dooly Early Echols Elbert Emanuel Evans Fannin Franklin Gilmer Glascock Grady Greene Hancock Haralson Hart Heard Irwin Jasper Jeff Davis Jefferson Jenkins Johnson Jones Lamar Lanier Lee Lincoln Long Lumpkin Macon Madison Marion McDuffie McIntosh Meriwether Miller Mitchell Monroe Montgomery Morgan Oglethorpe Peach Pickens Pierce Pike Pulaski Putnam Quitman Rabun Randolph Schley Screven Seminole Stephens Stewart Sumter Talbot Taliaferro Tattnall Taylor Telfair Terrell Toombs Towns Treutlen Turner Twiggs Union Upson Warren Washington Wayne Webster Wheeler White Wilcox Wilkes Wilkinson Worth

** The original version of this post reported that the average 2020 per capita income for the 105 counties listed above was 61 percent of the national average. That was incorrect. The correct figure was 65.6 percent. The copy above has been corrected.

(C) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022