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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.

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