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Thanks, Mr. President, for giving us a new way to think about Georgia’s declining regions

By Charles Hayslett

File this under every-cloud-has-a-silver-lining.  President Trump’s characterization of Haiti and various South American and African countries as “shitholes” may have torpedoed a DACA deal, triggered a global diplomatic uproar and made it more likely that the federal government will shut down this weekend.  On the bright side, it also gives us a memorable way to think about the deteriorating counties and communities right here in Georgia.

Now, because I am a nice guy and don’t want to offend my friends in rural Georgia (and especially because my wife is from South Georgia and would not appreciate it), I am going to refrain from personally applying the president’s epithet to our state’s more unfortunate areas.  You’ll just have to use your imagination.

In the wake of the president’s unfortunate description, his surrogates have worked hard to shift the debate from the seemingly racist overtones of Trump’s reported language to a broader discussion about a merit-based approach to immigration.  I’m generalizing here, but they seem to be saying that Trump’s language wasn’t a commentary on the racial make-up of the nations he referenced (overwhelmingly black or brown), but the supposed economic prowess and productivity of their citizens.

I’m happy to take them at their word.  In that context, and by that standard, it seems reasonable to suggest that America has its own share of such areas – specifically, counties and communities that have long been on a downhill slide just about any way you want to measure it: economically, educationally, in terms of health status, etc.  It also seems reasonable to point out that these areas voted overwhelmingly for Donald J. Trump, and to wonder what he would like to do for voters who were among his most ardent supporters – who, indeed, were a large chunk of his base.

To be fair, Trump also won many of the state’s most affluent counties, which also tend to be deeply Republican, including growing suburban and exurban counties like Fayette, Forsyth, Cherokee and Dawson.  But a review of 2016 General Election results suggests Trump owes a large measure of his margin in Georgia to what might indelicately be called the, well, you-know-what vote.

Altogether, Trump carried 127 counties in Georgia.  Of the 4.7 million people living in those counties, 77.1 percent were white and 18.4 percent were black.  Based on the most recent educational attainment data available, they were also home to slightly more high school dropouts than college graduates – 625,808 adults without a high school degree versus 625,161 with at least a bachelor’s degree.  In contrast, the other 32 counties that went for Clinton were home to more than twice as many college graduates than high school dropouts – 1.2 million to 532,000.

That educational disadvantage translates, among other things, into weaker economic output, poorer health and higher healthcare costs.  The 127 Trump counties generated $10.45 billion in 2013 federal taxes (the most recent IRS data I’ve analyzed) versus $20.5 billion from the 32 Clinton counties.  At the same time, while generating basically twice as much in federal taxes, the Clinton counties (home to the larger population) consumed only about 17 percent more in FY2017 Medicaid costs than the Trump counties: $5.03 billion versus $4.3 billion.  One result of that math is that Medicaid patients from the Trump counties cost the state about 2.2 percent more per patient than those in the Clinton counties: $5,136 to $5,026 each.

What’s more, if educational trends are any indication, the economic and health gaps will almost certainly continue to widen.  In the fall of 2016, the University System of Georgia admitted a total of 41,906 students from throughout the state; 23,325 came from the Clinton counties and 18,581 from the Trump counties. 

But those overall numbers actually mask the extent of the differences.  Of the 41,906 students admitted that fall, 11,756 were accepted at the state’s top four research universities – Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia, Georgia State University and Regents University.  Of those, more than twice as many were from the more economically productive Clinton counties than the Trump counties: 8,421 versus 3,335.

An even starker picture emerges when you look at the state’s most economically depressed counties.  The Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) manages the state’s job tax credit program, which is designed to steer businesses and jobs to the state’s poorest counties by offering substantial tax credits for each new job created.  This year, DCA lists 71 counties in its Tier 1 category.  Only 721 students from those counties made it into one of the top four research universities.

And even that number is deceptive.  Of the 71 Tier 1 counties, the only one in Metro Atlanta is Clayton County, which sent 233 high school graduates to one or the other of the research universities.  The other 70 counties split the remaining 488 students.  Ten of those failed to send a single student to one of the top four Georgia schools.

In contrast, Fulton County, whose 5th congressional district Trump once said was in “horrible shape and falling apart,” sent 3,924 students to University System institutions in the fall of 2016, more than all the Trump counties combined; 1,971 of those were selected to one of the top four research universities.  It also generated 8.5 times as much in 2013 federal taxes as it consumed in FY2017 Medicaid benefits (and, of course, it went heavily for Clinton over Trump).

My purpose in writing this is in no way to denigrate Georgia’s poorest and least educated counties, or to in any way re-litigate the 2016 presidential campaign (although I suppose candor requires an acknowledgement that I am no fan of President Trump).  Indeed, I have devoted a fair chunk of the past several years to researching and writing a book aimed at putting a spotlight on the widening divide between Metro Atlanta and the rest of Georgia, especially the state’s poorest areas, and to exploring public policy solutions to the challenges posed.  It’s a tough nut to crack, and there are no easy solutions – either for, well, Georgia’s you-know-what holes, or for the more affluent areas that will inevitably be stuck with the tab. 

In an odd sort of way, President Trump may have performed a useful service where this issue is concerned.  In condemning countries whose emigrants to the United States he obviously sees as unproductive and uneducated drags on the nation’s resources, he has invited what could be a useful discussion about American communities that could be characterized in the same manner.

 

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