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Posts from the ‘The two Georgias’ Category

George Berry’s ‘crescent of poverty’ now an economic and political conundrum for Georgia Republicans

In the summer of 1969, a Hawkinsville, Ga., state legislator named John Henry Anderson opined to his hometown newspaper that rural Georgia was subsidizing the City of Atlanta, the state’s capital and largest municipality.

That news item somehow caught the attention of Ivan Allen, Jr., then mayor of Atlanta, and he was not pleased. He fired off instructions to the city’s Finance Department to develop a response to Representative Anderson.

The task fell to a young accountant by the name of George J. Berry. Berry dropped everything else he was working on and spent the next week researching and drafting a single-spaced, five-page response to Representative Anderson.

Berry’s recollection — passed along to me in an interview several years ago — was that Mayor Allen signed the letter without a single change. The Berry-drafted, Allen-signed letter documented that Fulton County taxpayers paid more than twice as much per return in state income taxes than the residents of Anderson’s Pulaski County and more than twice as much per capita in state sales taxes. At the same time, the letter said, Pulaski County received $324.46 per pupil in state education funding versus $267.32 that went to Fulton County.

“I would recommend to you a close examination of these facts,” the letter said, “after which it would require a fertile imagination indeed to state that “rural Georgia supports Atlanta”.”

That was a half-century ago, and much has changed in that time. Berry, of course, went on to have a storied career as arguably the most accomplished public-sector administrator in Georgia history. He served as the City of Atlanta’s chief administrative officer under Mayor Sam Massell and airport commissioner under Mayors Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young (overseeing a massive expansion of the “world’s busiest airport” in the late 1970s and early ’80s). He ran the Georgia Department of Industry, Trade & Tourism under Governor Joe Frank Harris in the 1980s and was tapped by Governor Zell Miller to serve as chairman of the Metropolitan Atlanta Olympic Games Authority, which oversaw the city’s successful bid for the 1996 Olympics.

It was primarily in connection with his role at Industry, Trade & Tourism that I reached out to Berry in 2016. The notion of the Two Georgias was relatively new when he was serving as the state’s chief economic developer, and he told me it consumed no small amount of his time. Berry said he “struggled with this issue” but “never came up with an answer for what I called ‘crescent of poverty,'” which he described as covering much of south central and southwest Georgia. “I was not successful at all in decoding the forces” that produced the Two Georgias, he said.

Berry, who passed away in 2019, took no solace in the fact that his successors at what is now called the Georgia Department of Economic Development have made little if any progress with the Two Georgias problem. Berry’s “crescent of poverty” has expanded to include all but a handful of the 100-plus counties south of the gnat line.

Much of my TIGC work has been focused, after a fashion, on doing exactly the kind of analysis Berry did for Mayor Allen. Sadly, the Georgia Department of Revenue made that impossible several years ago when it simply, and inexplicably, stopped reporting county-level income tax data in its annual report, thereby eliminating one of the most useful data points it had been producing for decades.

Fortunately, the federal government’s Internal Revenue Service continues to report county-level data for federal taxes, and, if that’s any guide, the Fulton-Pulaski gap has widened to nearly three-to-one per return in the last half-century. In 2018, according to the IRS, Fulton County’s income tax liability was $29,922 per return versus $10,442 for Pulaski; the per capita ratio was more than five-to-one.

My purpose here is not to pick on Pulaski County. Indeed, it’s doing better than many of Georgia’s rural counties. But any study of the Two Georgias problem gets around sooner or later to an examination not just of various economic, education, and health rankings, but to the matter of taxes paid and services consumed. If anything, that kind of data brings the state’s Two Georgias problem — and the gulf between the state’s haves and have-nots — into sharper and more alarming relief.

To provide one limited example, I’ve recently analyzed county-level consumption of Medicaid, Peachcare and Food Stamp spending and compared it to county-level federal tax liabilities for 2018 (the last year for which IRS data is available). This table summarizes the data for the five TIGC regions — 12 counties in Metro Atlanta, seven in Coastal Georgia, 43 in Middle Georgia, 41 in North Georgia and 56 in interior South Georgia.

TIGC’s Metro Atlanta region, with 48 percent of the state’s population, generated 68 percent of the state’s 2018 federal tax liability while using 39 percent of the federal share of Medicaid, Peachcare and Food Stamp spending in the state. At the other end of the regional spectrum, the 56-county South Georgia region, with 11 percent of the state’s population, generated only five percent of the state’s federal income tax liability and used 16 percent of the Medicaid, Peachcare and Food Stamp spending. Put another way, it took 82.5 percent of South Georgia’s federal tax obligation to cover its Medicaid, Peachcare and Food Stamp costs. For Metro Atlanta, the comparable figure was only 13.2 percent.

This interactive map shows the percentage of each county’s 2018 federal income tax liability required to cover the federal share of its Medicaid, Peachcare and Food Stamp costs.

This map illustrates the percentage of each county’s 2018 federal taxes required to cover the federal share of its Medicaid, Peachcare and Food Stamp costs for that year. The darker the shading, the higher the percentage.

The gap between individual counties at the very top and bottom of this analysis is even more stunning. Forty-seven counties couldn’t cover their share of these social service costs in 2018. At the bottom of the pile were two southwesst Georgia neighbors, Calhoun and Miller counties, whose Medicaid, Peachcare and Food Stamp costs amounted, respectively, to 238.6 percent and 219.5 percent of their federal income tax liabilities.

At the top were Forsyth and Oconee counties (which typically vie for the No. 1 spot in every ranking I’ve identified or developed). Forsyth County’s public healthcare and food stamp costs took only 3.1 percent of its federal tax liability; Oconee County, 4.3 percent.

If the challenge over the course of Berry’s career — from his days as a young City Hall numbers-cruncher to his stewardship of the state’s economic development effort — was difficult, it has grown exponentially more vexing in the decades since then.

What was once largely an economic development challenge has now morphed into a much more complex challenge with cultural and political dimensions. Throughout Berry’s career, Democrats dominated state politics, overwhelmingly for the most part. Republicans were only beginning to rise to power as he left the public stage. Initially the GOP staked its claim largely in Metro Atlanta, the most economically vibrant part of the state, with traditional Republican policy arguments that focused on support for free enterprise, low taxes and limited government. Democrats were increasingly dependent on rural Georgia.

Since then, the Democratic Party’s comeback strategy has been built heavily around Georgia’s growing Black vote, especially in urban areas. As that evolution has unfolded, rural whites have been drawn increasingly — indeed, overwhelmingly — to a Republican Party focused on religious and cultural issues.

The result is that today the two parties have basically swapped geographic territories, but Republicans find themselves faced with the far more difficult task of trying to serve — and maintain their political grip on — two profoundly different tribes. The party’s exurban territories — in counties like Forsyth, Oconee, Cherokee and others — are literally among the most economically prosperous, best educated and least dependent on government resources in the nation. After covering its 2018 Medicaid, Peachcare and Food Stamp costs, Forsyth County alone left $1.5 billion-with-a-b on the federal table.

From the gnat line south, however, the GOP’s rural territory is devolving into third world status. That includes the two most Republican counties in the state, Brantley and Glascock, which, respectively, gave Trump 90.2 and 89.6 percent of their 2020 votes. They also both came up short in covering their 2018 public healthcare and Food Stamp costs — Brantley by more than $1 million, Glascock by $1.6 million.

The two counties were among 48 Middle and South Georgia counties with populations of fewer than 20,000 people that went for Trump, most of them heavily. Combined, their Medicaid, Peachcare and Food Stamp costs burned up 96.6 percent of the federal taxes they owed — $622 million out of $643.6 million.

Republicans, then, have inherited Berry’s “crescent of poverty” not just as an economic development challenge, but as a political conundrum. Their long-term political survival in those areas may well depend on solving the economic development problem that vexed George Berry and all his successors. I’m sure Berry would wish them well, but I doubt he’d be very optimistic.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2021

Moving the All-Star game punished the wrong Georgia

President Biden and Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred apparently never got the memo about the Two Georgias.

That’s about the only conclusion to be drawn from their reaction to the enactment of Georgia Senate Bill 202, aka “The Election Integrity Act of 2021.” When Biden publicly urged the MLB to strip Atlanta of this year’s MLB All-Star game, he was basically calling in friendly fire on his own party’s home turf in perhaps the most politically important state in the nation right now.

More specifically, he targeted Cobb County, home of the Atlanta Braves’ Truist Park and designated site of the 2021 All-Star game. Long a bastion of GOP strength, Cobb County finally tipped Democratic in 2016 and then gave Biden a 56,000-vote margin in 2020. Kudos to the political wizards who helped him think that one through.

Georgia has been undergoing an almost biological cellular division for nearly a half-century now. With every passing year, Metro Atlanta and the rest of the state have drifted further and further apart in just about every measurable way — including economics, educational attainment and population health.

And politics. The earliest sightings of Republicans in modern Georgia took place in metropolitan Atlanta about 50 years ago. They clawed their way to prominence and ultimately dominance at county courthouses in fast-growing suburban Atlanta counties and then began to infiltrate the state legislature.

Since then, Democrats have reasserted control at most Atlanta-area county governments, but Republicans have invaded and now all but own rural Georgia — and the State Capitol. It plainly escaped the attention of the White House and the MLB that the sponsors of S.B. 202 hail not from Atlanta, Decatur, Lawrenceville or Marietta, but from such far-flung rural climes as Sylvania, Danielsville, Cataula, Chickamauga, Perry, Ocilla and Vidalia.

If economic punishment was the goal, a better strategy might have been to rattle some budgetary sabers at, for example, Augusta’s Fort Gordon, which sits next door to the Senate District represented by Senator Max Burns (R-Sylvania), who chairs the Senate Ethics Committee that produced the final version of S.B. 202 and is listed as its No. 1 sponsor, as well as other South Georgia military installations and federal facilities.

If, instead, the objective was political humiliation, you’d think they might have noticed that Burns’s sprawling, largely-rural east-Georgia district also sweeps into Augusta and brackets a certain well-tended golf course that will be ground zero for the sports media for the next several days.

Not for nothing, the 2021 Master’s Tournament, as it does every Covid-free year, will double as a post-legislative party scene for lobbyists and lawmakers and an entertainment venue for the state’s well-heeled corporate leaders, who will no doubt have to spend some of their time trying to convince their out-of-state customers and prospects that the state is not actually run by knuckle-dragging racists.

It may be a tough sell. A betting man might wager that Stacey Abrams and her minions will find their way to the gates of Augusta National in time to make the evening news. And that the estimable U.S. Representative James Clyburn (D-South Carolina) will cross the Savannah River to lend a hand. Rachel Maddow and Anderson Cooper can probably be expected to set up live shots at the Amen Corner.

For what it’s worth, my reading of the bill and various analyses is that there’s a fair argument to be made that the legislation is not quite as horrific as first thought. As an example, Democrats complained mightily that the legislation will greatly restrict ballot drop boxes used in the last election for absentee ballot applications and actual ballots. But drop boxes didn’t exist at all prior to the last election cycle; Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger used the emergency powers of his office to authorize them during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, at least, the use of a limited number of such boxes (to be located inside government buildings and available during business hours) is codified into state law.

Another relatively innocuous change cuts the window prior to elections for applying for absentee ballots from six months to, for some odd reason, 78 days. That strikes me as plenty of time to apply for an absentee ballot — although responding to a flood of requests in a shorter window of time could stress elections offices in big counties — which, frankly, might help give the state the excuse it needs to exercise a new power it just gave itself to step in and fire local elections superintendents.

Beyond that, S.B. 202 really is pretty horrific. It’s difficult to read it and avoid a judgment that it will make voting harder in large urban Democratic counties, especially in minority precincts, and easier in mostly Republican rural counties. (This subject deserves a screed of its own, which I’ll try to get to later; in the meantime, a good analysis appears in today’s New York Times.)

But even if the final version of S.B. 202 was totally benign, motive and intent matter. Stampeded following the 2020 election by a zombie-like army of Trump-enthralled rural voters convinced that their own party’s leaders had stolen the election for Biden, Republican legislators began drafting bills that stopped just short of requiring DNA tests to get an absentee ballot. Early versions of the legislation were so repellant that the state’s Republican lieutenant governor, Geoff Duncan, proclaimed himself “disgusted” and refused to preside over the State Senate’s consideration of the bill, and four GOP senators found a way to avoid voting on that version of the bill.

Optics matter too. The provision outlawing giving food and water to voters stuck in long voting lines — as minority voters in urban areas often are — was amazingly bone-headed. So was Governor Brian Kemp’s decision to sign the bill behind closed doors while flanked by White legislators and sitting under a painting of a plantation — and then, for God’s sake, to put out an official photograph of the historic event.

Add to this that while Kemp was signing the bill into law, a Black female state legislator who’d had the temerity to knock on the governor’s door was being put in handcuffs, arrested and hauled away by a pair of well-fed state troopers — in full view of multiple video cameras and cellphones.

At that point, any substantive case that might — might — have been made for the law was a lost cause. “Georgia G.O.P. Passes Major Law to Limit Voting Amid Nationwide Push,” thundered The New York Times. From The Washington Post: “As Georgia’s new law shows, when Black people gain local power, states strip that power away.”

Enter now the White House and Major League Baseball, and recognize that the laws of physics also apply to politics: for every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction. Put another way, if Republicans do something stupid, they can count on the Democrats to do something just as stupid right back.

Thus did Biden and the MLB lurch into ready/fire/aim mode and deprive businesses and employees in an increasingly Democratic part of the state of, according to a Cobb Travel and Tourism executive, more than $100 million in projected cash flow.

Clearly, one of the Two Georgias deserved all this economic pain, radioactive headlines and political opprobrium — but it wasn’t Metro Atlanta or Cobb County. Now, though, the problem isn’t just that Atlanta is paying an economic price for rural Georgia’s retrograde politics, it’s that there’s almost certainly more to come.

As AJC sports columnist Steve Hummer put it this weekend, “The loss of baseball’s All-Star game was just the beginning. Why, with a little more work from those beneath the Gold Dome, we can become Birmingham before you know it.”

“Why,” he added a few paragraphs later, “would any major sporting league – or major company for that matter – want to have anything to do with a leadership that so eagerly gives credence to a bald-faced lie?”

Here he makes an important point. The Georgia General Assembly adjourned last week after devoting much of its legislative energy to producing a 98-page law based spawned entirely by President Trump’s fictitious claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him.

One byproduct of that legislative disaster is that it spawned a political virus for which there is no obvious vaccine — and no way of knowing where or how it might spread. Aside from the economic development implications, it doesn’t take much imagination to wonder whether the 5-star Black athletes now dressing out for Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs might begin to think twice about playing football in a state where the Legislature apparently wants to hinder their right to vote.

If, for instance, running back Zamir “Zeus” White and wide receiver Georgia Pickens were to even glance in the direction of the transfer portal because of the new law, let’s just say that the likely opposite reaction would be very unequal — and would require Governor Kemp to build a bigger fence around the State Capitol to hold the UGA alumni association at bay.

If the recent presidential and Senate elections marked tipping points in Georgia politics, the enactment of S.B. 202 may prove to be an even more important inflection point in the long-running political war between Metro Atlanta and rural Georgia. My hunch as well is that one opposite and equal reaction to S.B. 202 is that voter outrage in Metro Atlanta will remain at a boiling point through the 2022 election cycle. Bad press for depriving voters standing in long lines of food and water may prove to be the least of the Republicans’ problems.

In the Two Georgias, a big, mega-million dollar hit on Metro Atlanta and Cobb County is a small price for Senator Burns and his colleagues to pay to calm the Trump-inflamed fever swamps they represent.

In fact, it’s no price at all. Which is the problem. Burns’s hometown of Sylvania is more than 200 miles from Truist Park, and most of his fellow GOP colleagues live at least 100 miles from the ballpark.

At the risk of being uncharitable, I can’t help but wonder if some of these legislators — and their constituents — aren’t laughing up their sleeves (if not out loud) at Metro Atlanta’s misfortune. For them, S.B. 202 was a two-fer. Not only did they weaken the region politically, they nicked it for tens of millions of dollars in business in the process.

I’ll close by suggesting that this need not be the end of the opening chapter of this story. Georgia’s newly-empowered Democrats in Washington — led by Senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock — should make this case to the White House and Major League Baseball and implore them to reverse the All-Star game decision. It may not be too late, and a reversal would undo a major mistake and set the stage for a discussion about how to exact economic retribution on those who actually deserve it.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2021

Forget the “two Georgias,” welcome to Massassippi

I can’t remember whether he wrote it or said it, but years ago the legendary Atlanta Constitution editor Bill Shipp opined that if you lifted Metro Atlanta out of Georgia, what was left would be worse off than Mississippi. I remember it because I’m from Mississippi and my first reaction was: Really? There might be an area that was dumber and poorer than my home state?

That was long enough ago that it was difficult to round up and analyze the data you’d need to prove Shipp’s point one way or the other. Now, though, all you need is an internet connection, a spreadsheet and a little time, and recently I found myself plowing through a fresh batch of education data and decided to put the Shipp thesis to the test.

And guess what? On at least one count, he was — and is — right: Mississippi has a slightly higher percentage of college graduates than the 147 Georgia counties that lie outside Trouble in God’s Country’s 12-county Metro Atlanta region.

In Mississippi, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), 21.8 percent of adults 25 and older hold college degrees. For Georgia’s 147 non-Metro Atlanta counties, the figure is 21.3 percent. If those 147 counties constituted a state unto themselvces, it would rank next-to-last nationally for this metric. West Virginia stands dead last with 20.3 percent of its adult population holding college degrees.

All of which begs the question: If Georgia’s 147 non-Metro Atlanta counties are, collectively, so close to the bottom of the college education pile, where would the Great State of Metro Atlanta stand?

Pretty dang close to the top, it turns out. For TIGC’s 12-county region, the share of adults holding college degrees is 41.1 percent, and that would put it No. 3 nationally — behind the District of Columbia (57.6 percent) and Massachusetts (42.9 percent). Colorado would be No. 4 at 40.1 percent, and no other state tops 40 percent.

It wasn’t always this way. The 1970 Census found that there were fewer than a quarter-million college graduates living in the entire state of Georgia — and a slight majority of those lived in the 147 counties outside TIGC’s Metro Atlanta region.

According to the latest ACS estimates, which cover the period 2014 through 2018, the state is now home to more than two million college graduates. Metro Atlanta, with 47.2 percent of the state’s adult population, claimed 63.2 percent of those college graduates — 1.32 million. The other 147 counties are home to 52.8 percent of the adult population but only 36.7 of the college graduates. TIGC’s 56-county South Georgia region still has more high school dropouts than college graduates, according to the ACS data.

It’s now been more than 40 years since the state’s political and civic leaders began fretting about “the two Georgias.” Today, I’d submit moved well beyond that split and are looking at a mash-up of the states of Mississippi and Massachusetts — the Schizophrenic State of Massassippi. That kind of tortured combination may be difficult to comprehend, but it could be our future — and the educational divide is just the beginning. It already extends demonstrably to economics, population health, politics and a range of cultural issues.

To understand the impact of the educational differences on economic performance, we need look no further than the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis’s data on county-level gross domestic product (GDP). According to that data, Metro Atlanta produced 62.43 percent of the state’s GDP in 2018 and generated more than 76 percent of its economic growth over the previous five years. Today, fully three-fourths of Georgia’s GDP is produced north of the gnat line.

As bad as the educational divide is, it’ll probably get worse before it gets better — if it ever does. One disturbing trend previously unearthed here at TIGC is a stunning drop-off in enrollment at University System of Georgia (USG) institutions from the 147 non-Metro Atlanta counties. Based on an analysis of a decade’s worth of USG fall enrollment data, the non-Metro Atlanta counties were sending more new freshmen to USG institutions up through 2009.

But that changed in 2010, as the Great Recession began to take its toll: fall enrollment from the 147 non-Metro Atlanta counties fell off a cliff and started a five-year slide, as the graph here shows. Metro Atlanta took a one-year hit in 2011, then began a slow and mostly steady recovery year and got back to its high water mark in 2018. The other 147 counties finally enjoyed a little recovery in 2015 but then plateaued and have been flat since then.

The contrast gets to be even starker if you look only at the state’s two flagship institutions of higher education, the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech. In 2018, as the graphs at the left show, Metro Atlanta overwhelmingly dominated enrollment at both universities. Some 71 Georgia counties didn’t send a single new freshman to Georgia Tech that year; at UGA, the same was true of 22 counties.

Georgia’s current crop of politicians are, of course, concerned with the divide and its implications. Governor Brian Kemp launched a “rural strike team” in 2019, and he and the General Assembly this year may begin putting some money into rural broadband. Earlier this month Kemp announced a public-private initiative that would plow more than $200 million into providing hardwired internet service to 80,000 locations in 18 mostly Middle Georgia counties. Whether that bet will pay off remains to be seen, of course — especially without improvements in more fundamental local education needs.

They had better hope they do. Otherwise we may have to bring Shipp, the old Constitution editor who regularly used an old manual typewriter like a sledgehammer, out of retirement to start warning that we’re closing in on West Virginia.

(c) Trouble in God’s Country 2021