Rural Georgia never recovered from the Great Recession. Now comes COVID-19
There’s a persistent pattern I’ve noticed in various buckets of economic, population, and education data, but I’ve never fully connected the dots or taken a stab at suggesting what it all might mean. Now seems like a good time to do that.
Rural Georgia — and especially Middle and South Georgia — got the crap kicked out of it by the Great Recession and never has recovered. Maybe that’s been obvious to everybody else, but it might be useful to look at several data points to get a sense of just how bad the damage has been — especially now that COVID-19 has rolled in and begun raining its own special brand of hell down on the state, and especially southwest Georgia.
I think the first part of the Great Recession picture I noticed was the result of an almost whimsical notion on my part. I’d made numerous references to “the death of rural Georgia,” but I was thinking metaphorically about local economies and the collapse of various critical parts of community infrastructures, like school systems and hospitals.
Then one day I wondered if some of them might really be, literally, dying.
Turns out that’s an easy enough thing to check. Thanks to the Georgia Department of Public Health’s excellent, publicly-accessible OASIS database, you can easily download county-level birth and death data for the past 24 years (since 1994) and use it to easily see whether many counties were reporting more deaths than births.
For about the first dozen or so years — from 1994 until 2009 — there wasn’t much news in those numbers. The number of counties reporting more deaths than births floated up and down between a high of 19 (2002) and a low of eight (2006).
But then, coinciding with the onset of Great Recession, that number began a steady climb. The year 2007 saw 13 counties report more deaths than births, an average year; in 2008, the number rose to 18, a significant jump but still within the range seen up until that point. In 2010, the number of counties reporting more deaths than births ticked up to 20 — not much of an increase, but a new high. Since then, as this graph shows, the number has climbed steadily and dramatically.
As of 2018, 79 of Georgia’s 159 counties reported more deaths than births. Of those, 78 are outside Metro Atlanta and the vast majority are small rural counties, as the map to the right illustrates.
The only Metro Atlanta county to make this group was Fayette County, long recognized as a redoubt for retirees well beyond child-bearing age.
Of course, suffering more deaths than births is not the only way to lose population, but it can hardly be regarded as a positive trend. More than 60 counties lost population in the 10-year period from 2009 through 2018.
The second data point I noticed had to do with education — specifically, the number of high school graduates each county was sending to a University System of Georgia (USG) college or university. I’ve written about this before, but I’ve never really spotlighted how the pattern changed with the onset of the Great Recession.
Up until 2011, the 147 counties outside Metro Atlanta sent more freshmen to University System of Georgia institutions than the 12 Metro Atlanta counties, which is probably what you’d expect. But (as this graph shows) the number of freshmen being sent from those counties to USG institutions started to flatten out and decline in 2008 and ’09, and then basically fell off a cliff for the next several years before beginning what looks like a relatively weak recovery.
Metro Atlanta enrollment also took a significant hit, but it recovered faster and finally got back to its high-water mark in 2017 and ’18. The other 147 counties saw their combined numbers drop through 2014 before showing any improvement, and they are still well below the numbers they posted prior to the Great Recession.
Finally, economics. Based on various pots of Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) data, I’ve reported that Metro Atlanta suffered a bigger initial economic hit but recovered faster and has since widened the gap between itself and the rest of the state. But perhaps the clearest picture emerged late last year when the BEA, a unit of the Commerce Department, published county-level Gross Domestic Product (GDP) data for the first 18 years of this century.
The pattern is the same, as this graph illustrates.
The 12 Metro Atlanta counties suffered significant drops in GDP in 2008 and ’09, and it took the region until 2013 to get back to pre-Great Recession levels. The rest of the state took a softer hit but needed an extra year — until 2014 — to get back to pre-recession highs, and the growth since then has been fairly tepid.
This table shows GDP by region for each of the Trouble in God’s Country regions for selected years ($s in 000s). The key takeaways from this are that — since the state began emerging from the recession in about 2013 — my TIGC Middle Georgia and South Georgia regions have lagged badly behind the rest of the state (and Metro Atlanta in particular), struggling to average a growth rate of one percent a year.
I can probably get an argument from actual economists or statisticians about cause-and-effect, but I’ll go out on a limb here and conjecture that the Great Recession set in motion forces that have contributed dramatically to the continued decimation of Georgia’s (and no doubt America’s) rural regions.
Significant areas of rural Georgia were suffering population loss and economic contraction even before COVID-19 hit (and now they’re sending fewer young people to college, let alone getting them back home if and when they graduate).
As perhaps the most dramatic example, Dougherty County lost more than three percent of its population and five percent of its GDP between 2009 and 2018 — and that, obviously, was before the novel coronavirus turned it into the public health equivalent of Chernobyl.
The same, indeed, is true for the entire southwest Georgia region. Nearly every county in the Albany region has suffered both population losses and GDP contractions in the past decade, and now they have among the worst COVID-19 case rates in the nation and probably on the planet.
That, I think, is the new definition of trouble in God’s country, and it’s difficult to even envision what a recovery strategy and process might look like. Whatever that strategy and process turns out to be, it will probably take generations to accomplish.