One recurring theme in my Trouble in God’s Country research is that Metro Atlanta is paying the lion’s share of taxes in Georgia while consuming a much smaller portion of social services, such as Medicaid and food stamp benefits. Rural Georgia, generally speaking, doesn’t cover its costs for those services.
In at least one regard, however, rural Georgians seem to be doing their best to balance the books. They’re spending millions of dollars on Georgia lottery tickets that help send tens of thousands of Metro Atlanta kids to college.
Of course, a fair number of rural Georgians get advanced education through lottery-funded HOPE scholarship grants – at either University System of Georgia (USG) institutions or one of the state’s technical colleges – but Metro Atlanta is clearly getting the better end of this particular deal.
I’m not sure this qualifies as real news. It probably won’t come as a surprise to political leaders and policymakers who work in these areas. Also, I should stipulate that the Georgia lottery and HOPE scholarship data I’ve been studying comes with a handful of significant caveats. Available data from the University System of Georgia (USG) and the U.S. Census Bureau make it possible to paint pretty precise county-level and regional pictures of educational attainment patterns and college enrollment trends throughout the state.
The lottery and HOPE data are a little fuzzier and the resulting pictures are therefore a bit blurrier. After studying the data for a bit, I’ve decided the best way to tell this story is to present two views – a big-picture, macro view, and then a more isolated micro snapshot.
First, the big picture, and here the caveats are especially important. Lottery sales are reported on a county-specific basis, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that a lottery ticket sold in a particular county is purchased by a resident of that same county – or even a Georgia resident. Inter-county or interstate sales aren’t tracked, although it’s pretty obvious that many of the Georgia counties on the Alabama border are pulling in millions of dollars from that state[i].
HOPE scholarships, meanwhile, are awarded to students in their county of residence, not their county of origin. Odds are that the initial awards do go to students in their county of origin, but it’s also obvious that many students effectively move to their college towns and establish residence there while they’re still receiving HOPE awards. Even a cursory review of data for college communities makes that clear.
Still, the big picture is a useful starting point. For that I organized lottery sales and HOPE scholarship data by my five Trouble in God’s Country regions – 12 Metro Atlanta counties, 41 North Georgia counties, 43 Middle Georgia counties, 56 South Georgia counties, and seven Coastal Georgia counties. Here’s how those numbers shake out:
The obvious takeaway from this is that Metro Atlanta and North Georgia were the only two regions that got larger shares of the HOPE scholarship grants than they ponied up for lottery tickets. The largely rural areas of Middle, South and Coastal Georgia didn’t do nearly as well.
For the micro view, I organized a cluster of 16 largely rural counties in interior Middle and South Georgia; I’m calling it the South Central Georgia Cluster[ii]. All these counties are far enough away from a state line that they shouldn’t get a lot of interstate lottery dollars, and most (with a couple of exceptions) are well off the beaten path of the major interstate highways. In other words, it’s a fair presumption that their lottery sales are largely local.
As a point of comparison, I chose Cherokee County, an exurban county on the northern edge of Metro Atlanta (that’s the green county in the northern part of the map). In 1994, the 16-county cluster of rural counties was home to a little more than twice as many people as Cherokee County – 231,402 to 107,569, according to Census estimates for that year. But from the git-go, the rural counties were more enthusiastic lottery players. In 1994 (the first full year of the lottery), lottery sales in those 16 counties were 3.6 times as much as in Cherokee County.
Today, the populations are roughly equivalent: 254,149 for Cherokee County versus 271,182 for the 16 rural counties, based on 2018 Census Bureau estimates (the latest available).
But lottery sales in those 16 counties are still more than double Cherokee County’s: $151.9 million to $69.3 million. If Cherokee County and the 16 South Central Georgia counties constituted a state of sorts, here’s what their total respective shares of the lottery sales and HOPE grants would look like over the life of the programs:
Perhaps more interesting than the total shares of lottery sales and HOPE grants is the way the trend lines evolved over time. From 1994 through 2011, the 16-county South Central Georgia Cluster received more in HOPE scholarships than Cherokee County. But in 2012, both areas took major hits in HOPE funding (as did the state as a whole). The South Central counties suffered a 43.2 percent hit in HOPE scholarship grants and still haven’t gotten back to their 2011 level; Cherokee County dropped 26.5 percent but recovered more quickly and had gotten nearly all the way back to its 2011 high by 2017. The result has been that Cherokee County passed the 16 rural counties in HOPE grants in 2012 and has been widening the gap ever since.
This matches a pattern I’ve seen in other education-related data. As I noted in my last post, up through 2010, Metro Atlanta had trailed the other 147 counties in the state in fall freshman enrollment at USG colleges. But those lines crossed in 2011 and the gap has been widening ever since. The same pattern shows up in a comparison of Gwinnett County and all 56 counties of interior South Georgia from late 2016.
I’ve got more work to do on all this. I need to take a deep dive into enrollment patterns at the state’s technical colleges, and I’m expecting to get a breakout on HOPE scholarship grants by type of institution – USG, technical college, or private college – fairly soon. I’ll try to update all this within a couple of weeks.
Even with that work still to be done – and with all the caveats stipulated above – it seems fair to suggest that a lot of poor folks in rural Georgia are sending a lot of Metro Atlanta kids to college.
[i] I figured this out when I was trying to get a handle on lottery sales patterns in different parts of the state. One approach I took was to calculate lottery sales per capita – in other words, to divide total lottery sales by population. The state average for 2018 was $437.08 per capita. Far and away the top producer was Quitman County at more than $4,800 per capita. One of the smallest and poorest counties in the state, Quitman County sits forlornly on a stretch of the Chattahoochee River that is known as Walter F. George Lake in Georgia and Lake Eufaula in Alabama; Quitman County’s top economic asset in this regard is no doubt the Ernest Vandiver Causeway, which spans the lake and connects it to the State of Alabama, which is one of about a half-dozen U.S. states that still doesn’t have a lottery of its own. While Quitman County’s per capita sales dwarf those of all other counties, seven of the top 10 per capita sales counties border Alabama, and two others are just east of Quitman County.
[ii] The counties included in the South Central Georgia Cluster are: Atkinson, Bacon, Ben Hill, Bleckley, Coffee, Dodge, Irwin, Jeff Davis, Laurens, Montgomery, Pulaski, Telfair, Toombs, Treutlen, Wheeler, and Wilcox.