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Gauging the gap in educational attainment in Georgia’s urban-rural divide

This post is the second in a series I’m developing as I rework my TIGC presentation for a mid-November symposium on Georgia’s urban-rural divide. In the first of this series, I took a look at the widening gap in premature death rates between Metro Atlanta and Georgia’s Other 147 Counties. Today’s topic is educational attainment.

I’ve covered some of this before but I don’t feel like I’ve ever stitched together the whole story, which I’ve come to view as the single most important driver in the division between my TIGC 12-county Metro Atlanta region and the Other 147 Counties.

I’ll start with this graph, which I’ve just developed.

What this shows is the number of college graduates by region over the last half-century, as documented by the U.S. Census Bureau and compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS).

The first takeaway from this data is that the Metro Atlanta/Other 147 divide is a relatively recent development. In 1970, according to the Census data, there were fewer than a quarter of a million college graduates in the entire state, and slightly more than half of them lived outside today’s Metro Atlanta region (much of which was also rural back then).

That balance had tipped in favor of my TIGC 12-county Metro Atlanta region by 1980, but just barely. It was only as the state moved into the 1980s that the gap in the number of college graduates really began to widen. Based on the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) data for the five-year period 2015-2019, more than 63 percent of the state’s nearly 2.2 million college graduates reside in the 12 Metro Atlanta counties.

While I regard the educational attainment data as the most important metric in this area, the truth is it’s a lagging indicator — and there’s a leading indicator that forecasts even more bad news. Over time, I’ve stitched together 14 years of fall enrollment data from the University System of Georgia (USG). It’s reflected in this graph.

What this shows is that for the first four years of my study period, the Other 147 Counties were still sending more freshmen to USG colleges than the 12 Metro Atlanta counties. Look at the orange line and you’ll see that the Other 147 Counties peaked in 2009 when they sent a little more than 23,000 freshmen to USG institutions and then started a pretty dramatic six-year slide.

This is arguably the most significant of the Great Recession “aftershocks” I’ve written about in other pieces. Metro Atlanta continued to send growing numbers of freshmen to USG institutions for another two years before being hit by a comparable aftershock and suffering a two-year tumble before beginning to recover.

As the chart shows, Metro Atlanta continued to send more freshmen to USG institutions for the remainder of the current decade. One takeaway from the data is that — between 2006 and 2020 — the Other 147 Counties went from sending just over 15 percent more freshman to USG colleges and universities than Metro Atlanta to sending nearly 16 percent fewer — a swing of more than 30 points in 14 years.

But there’s a hint of good news at the end of the decade. After an odd, statewide downturn in freshman enrollment in 2019, both Metro Atlanta and the Other 147 Counties posted large and highly comparable increases in the fall of 2020. The Other 147 Counties may not have gained any ground on Metro Atlanta, but at least they didn’t lose any more.

Overall, the 12 Metro Atlanta counties sent about 54 percent of the total Fall 2020 in-state enrollees to the University System’s 28 institutions.

But the picture is much starker when you look at the four major research universities — Augusta University, Georgia State University, Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia. At those four institutions combined, just over 70 percent of the Fall 2020 in-state enrollees came from the 12 Metro Atlanta counties.

At Georgia Tech, the percentage of Fall 2020 enrollees from Metro Atlanta hit 74 percent, and the 83 counties highlighted on the map at right didn’t send a single freshman to Tech that year. At the University of Georgia in Athens, the percentage of Fall 2020 in-state enrollees from Metro Atlanta topped 62 percent, and it pulled students from more of the state; only 20 counties failed to send a single freshman to UGA that Fall.

That this concentration of educational muscle in Metro Atlanta holds economic implications for the entire state should be obvious. But it also foreshadows major cultural and political shifts, which I’ll get into in a future post.

(c) Trouble in God’s Country 2021

Gauging the Gap between Metro Atlanta and the rest of the state on premature death rates

I’ve spent a good part of the summer taking a deep dive into several pots of economic and education data with an eye toward fleshing out a couple of chapters in the book version of TIGC. As a result, I’ve been neglecting the blog.

Then, in mid-August, I got a call asking me to make a presentation to this year’s opening session of the Georgia House Rural Development Council (HRDC) on September 1st. Over the years, I’ve given more than 50 presentations on my TIGC work, and generally I’ll update or amend my PowerPoint with whatever new data I’ve been working on. The result has been that the presentation has devolved, in my view, into a bit of mishmash.

Now I’ve been asked to speak in mid-November to a symposium on the state’s urban-rural divide and, with about six weeks to work, I’ve decided to do a major overhaul on my presentation — and to write an occasional post as I do so.

This is the first of those posts. My plan right now is to create a series of slides built around the theme of “gauging the gap” between Metro Atlanta and the rest of the state.

I started this process yesterday by updating my research and analysis of the state’s county-level premature death rates. I use premature death rates — formally known as “Years of Potential Life Lost before Age 75,” or YPLL 75 — as a proxy for community health status.

I’m sure I can get a fair argument that this approach is insufficient or an oversimplification, but, as an old public health friend once explained to me, “Premature death is the Dow Jones Industrial Average of population health.

“If you want to look at one number and get a feel for a community’s health status, look at premature death,” he said. Backing up that assessment is the fact that County Health Rankings & Roadmaps uses premature death rates as a key component in evaluating health outcomes for more than 3,000 U.S. counties.

Another reason I like using YPLL 75 rates is that they’re simple to calculate. Working with age data mined from death certificates submitted to the state, the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) keeps track of all the years of potential life lost before age 75 for all the counties in the state on an annual basis and posts this data to its excellent public health database.

If a 50-year-old Macon man dies, he contributes 25 years to Bibb County’s bucket of years of potential life lost before age 75. A 74-year-old woman up in Clayton, Ga.? That’s a year on Rabun County’s tally. A six-month-old infant in Decatur? That goes down as 74-and-a-half years for DeKalb County. And so on.

The DPH database also includes annual population estimates generated by the U.S. Census Bureau, and that’s really all you need to calculate YPLL 75 (or Premature Death) Rates. The formula is:

(YPLL 75/YPLL 75 Population) X 100,000 = YPLL 75 Rate

As a couple of examples, Forsyth County had Georgia’s best YPLL 75 rate in 2020 and Clay County had the worst. In fast-growing Forsyth County, the total number of years of potential life lost before age 75 was 9,970. Divide that by the county’s YPLL 75 population (the number of people 75 or younger) of 238,043 and multiply the result by 100,000 and you get a YPLL 75 rate of 4,188.3. I haven’t double-checked this, but I’ll guarantee you that premature death rate is among the best in the country.

Tiny, poverty-stricken Clay County, located hard on the Alabama line in southwest Georgia, turned in true third-world numbers for 2020 — a YPLL 75 Rate of 22,180.6 (basically five times worse than Forsyth County).

(Its data also generated something of a riddle. With a YPLL 75 population of just over 2,500 people, its YPLL 75 total more than doubled from 2019 to 2020 — jumping from 253 to 562.5.

(When I saw that big increase in years of potential life lost, my first reaction was that Clay County had gotten clobbered by Covid-19. Adding to that line of speculation was the fact that the total number of deaths in the county actually dropped to 45 in 2020 from 57 in 2019, and I immediately figured the virus had claimed a number of relatively young people in the county. That wasn’t a crazy notion. Clay County has little if any healthcare infrastructure and isn’t that far from Albany, which at one point last year was the global ground zero for the virus.

(But no. A quick check of DPH’s Covid-19 data reveals that Clay County suffered only four Covid-19 deaths in 2020 (and none so far this year) — and only two of those victims were under the age of 75. Together they contributed only 28 years to the county’s total YPLL 75 pot of 562.5 years.

(So what was killing younger people in Clay County? A review of the cause-of-death data in DPH’s OASIS database didn’t turn up many significant differences over 2019 — until I got down to the External Causes category. In 2019, the county reported no suicides or poisoning deaths. In 2020, there were three poisoning deaths and four suicides, all under the age of 75. Indeed, four were under 50; that’s at least 100 years of potential life lost before the age of 75 right there.

(Were the suicides or poisoning deaths some sort of collateral damage from Covid-19? I don’t know, but I’m curious enough to check and see if similar patterns turn up other counties.)

I have, however, meandered. To tie off this incredibly laborious math explanation I started about a half-dozen paragraphs up, here are the numbers for Georgia’s best and worst YPLL 75 counties.

Now back to my original objective — a comparison of premature death rates between my TIGC 12-county Metro Atlanta region and the state’s other 147 counties. (I should probably acknowledge that I’ve waffled on the question of how best to analyze the data I’ve collected. I’ve looked at using a basic North Georgia/South Georgia split as well the five regions I created early on in this process. At times I’ve analyzed county data based on their political leanings. For the purposes of this upcoming presentation (and these blog posts) I’ve decided to try to keep it simple and just compare Metro Atlanta to the rest of the state.)

This chart shows the YPLL 75 performance for TIGC’s 12-county Metro Atlanta region versus the state’s Other 147 Counties from 1994 (the earliest year for which DPH has data) through 2020. With YPLL 75 Rates, the lower the number, the better, so Metro Atlanta’s blue line at the bottom of this chart signifies the better peformance.

There are several important takeaways from this chart. The first is that the gap between Metro Atlanta the rest of Georgia has been widening throughout the 26-year period. In 1994, Metro Atlanta had what might be described as a 15.8 percent premature death “advantage” over the rest of the state; by 2020, that “advantage” was up to 41 percent. As I’ll get into in future posts, these differences have implications both for healthcare costs and for economic productivity.

A second takeaway has to do with what began happening in about 2011. Up until then, both Metro Atlanta and the rest of the state had generally been gaining ground, if somewhat unevenly. But that pretty much came to a halt in 2010, and in 2011 the entire state’s YPLL 75 Rate ticked up (that is, got worse). Metro Atlanta regained some ground in 2012, but then saw its YPLL 75 Rate deteriorate a little or flatline every year for the next five years before finally posting some improvement in 2018 and 2019.

The Other 147 Counties fared worse over that same period. If Metro Atlanta’s YPLL 75 Rate performance produced a five-year plateau from 2013 through 2017, the rest of the state generated a couple of uphill climbs before finally finding a downhill slope and producing three straight years of (slightly) improving numbers. But then came 2020 and Covid-19 — and the YPLL 75 Rates took off like moonshots.

Back to the takeaways. Back in 2011 and ’12, as I was starting work on Trouble in God’s Country and just beginning to dig into the premature death data, I remember noticing the sudden uptick in YPLL 75 Rates but didn’t know what to make of them. Over time — and in combination with similar adverse trends in other data — I’ve come to believe that what I was seeing amounted to aftershocks from the Great Recession. It showed up in economic, education and even birth and death data, and in every case, the Other 147 Counties suffered a harder blow than Metro Atlanta.

What to make, then, of the modest gains that began showing up in 2017 and ’18? As it happens, I’m seeing similar patterns in other datasets. I discussed those in my HRDC presentation a few weeks ago, but hadn’t yet started this review of YPLL 75 Rates. In isolation, I wouldn’t attach much significance to any one instance of improvement, but in combination I think they signal that my Great Recession aftershocks may finally be playing themselves out.

Now, though, we have Covid-19, and its impact across a range of societal sectors — health, economics, education — is already profound. The question is whether it will generate its own wave of aftershocks that will be with us for years to come.

TIGC takes a fresh look at the political arithmetic of Covid-19 and poses a rude question

With less than 14 months to go before Georgia’s 2022 statewide elections, TIGC has decided it’s time to tackle the obvious political question that other observers and commentators are too polite and high-minded to address, namely: Are Republicans killing their own voters?

This is admittedly tough to prove. But it’s difficult — nay, impossible — to compare the state’s Covid-19 performance with recent election results and not at least wonder. As of this past Friday, the 129 counties that sided with Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election had significantly higher Covid-19 case rates and death rates — and much lower vaccination rates — than the 30 counties that went for Joe Biden.

Some raw numbers: Covid-19 data published Friday, September 10th, by the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) tells us that the Trump counties had suffered 1,077 more deaths than the Biden counties while vaccinating nearly 800,000 fewer people. Perhaps even worse for the Trump counties, their combined 14-day case rate — a measure of current rather than long-term trends — is a solid 41 percent higher than the rate in the Biden counties.

Of course, these numbers alone don’t prove anything. The virus is, as far as we know, politically agnostic, and neither death certificates nor vaccination records list political party preference. Further, it’s probably mathematically possible that an actual body count (an audit, perhaps, that compares death certificates with primary voting histories) would tell a different story. But a look at various bits and pieces of anecdotal data makes it difficult to conclude that Democrats are suffering a bigger Covid-19 hit.

Take, for instance, Brantley County. Located in deep southeast Georgia, Brantley gave Trump his biggest Georgia margin — 90.9 percent of the vote — but, as of Friday’s DPH report, it had the fourth-worst vaccination rate in the state at 20.8 percent. This could be purely coincidental, but your humble scribe here at TIGC is skeptical of that. Of the 51 Covid-19 deaths Brantley had reported by this past Friday, 43 were white, and all but three were 50 or older.

It is, of course, possible to find counternarratives in county-specific data. As an example, dirt-poor and heavily-black Hancock County, which gave Biden one of his biggest margins (72.1 percent) also had the state’s worst Covid-19 death rate as of Friday. That said, Hancock Countians seem to be taking the hint: 42.2 percent had been fully vaccinated as of last Friday, according to DPH data, one of the state’s highest rates, especially among rural counties.

Indeed, any attempt to find county-level correlations between Trump-Biden vote splits and, say, case or death rates is doomed to failure — thanks to a host of other variables that come into play, including race, poverty and educational levels, probably among others.

But at a macro level, fairly clear patterns begin to emerge, as this table shows.

Against the backdrop of those kinds of numbers, you’d think Georgia’s GOP leaders would be doing more to promote vaccinations and other Covid-19 mitigation measures, including masking. While Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican, has gotten vaccinated and publicly encouraged others to do so, it seems fair to say his support for anti-Covid policies has been less than full-throated. He has overridden attempts by local governments to impose masking mandates and other mitigation measures, and he’s up on Twitter today with (so far) three tweets attacking President Biden’s plan to require all businesses with more than 100 employees to ensure they’re vaccinated or at least tested weekly for the virus.

Kemp’s lack of enthusiasm on the anti-Covid front may have trickled down and infected the state’s bureaucracy. DPH has made a good bit of Covid material available to the media on its website and produced at least one television ad earlier this year, but it’s not clear how much play that ad got — or how effective it was. It does seem fair to suggest that the state-level effort left a vacuum that at least some local governments and health departments have felt compelled to try to fill.

As an example, Gwinnett County earlier this year launched a campaign built around “listening to moms” to encourage Covid-19 mitigation measures, including vaccinations, and has reportedly spent more than a half-million dollars on the campaign. It may be getting a decent return on that investment. While Gwinnett went through a Covid “hot spot” phase several months ago and has one of the state’s higher overall case rates, its Covid death rate is one of the lowest in the state and its vaccination rate, at 48.5 percent, ranked 6th best in the state as of last Friday. Its also the largest of the Metro Atlanta counties that was solidly Republican a decade ago but has shifted from red to blue since then: it went nearly 60-40 for Biden in the 2020 election.

TIGC won’t attempt to use these numbers to extrapolate over the next 14 months and estimate an impact on the 2022 elections, but it’s difficult to imagine that any of the state’s Republican politicians or operatives would find much good news — or comfort — in them. If the current 1,077-death difference between the Trump and Biden counties just happens to parallel the difference in voters lost by each party to Covid so far, that alone probably won’t spell the difference in next year’s elections.

But then you have to figure out how to factor in the difference in vaccination rates and recent Delta variant case rates — and layer that onto that the fundamental health differences between the state’s overwhelmingly rural Republican areas and its largely Democratic urban climes, including, specifically, higher rates of lethal comorbidities such as obesity and diabetes. Will those conditions, in combination with Covid-19, compound the premature death rates that are already higher in predominantly Republican rural Georgia?

Governor Kemp’s management of the state’s Covid plague may not quite rise to the level of criminal negligence or manslaughter. But it might yet turn out to be political suicide.

(Couple of notes on my methodology in this piece. In crunching the presidential votes, I’ve ignored Libertarian votes, as I usually do. In analyzing various pieces of DPH data, I’ve found that different units of the department use different population estimates to calculate the various case, death and vaccination rates. The vaccination rates published by DPH are pegged to 2018 population estimates, according to its own “Data Descriptions” published with the daily reports. It’s not clear to me what population estimates DPH uses to calculate daily case and death rates; the numbers don’t quite match any of the annual estimates I can find. In the interest of consistency, I have used 2020 population estimates pulled directly from the Department’s OASIS database (I haven’t had time to get into the actual county-level census counts yet). My use of the 2020 estimates produces slightly different case, death and vaccination rates than those shown on the various DPH reports. Also, many thanks to several Facebook friends who helped me crowdsource information about state and local Covid communications programs, especially old friend Terry L. Wells.)

118 Georgia counties report more deaths than births in 2020, a new record

The number of Georgia counties reporting more deaths than births jumped to 118 in 2020, up dramatically from 78 in 2019, according to new county-level mortality data published Monday by the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH).

The increase was generally expected. DPH reported in June that 2020 births were down 3.1 percent from 2019, and the Covid-19 death toll seemed certain to drive a big increase in the number of counties where burials outnumbered births.

All told, births still outnumbered deaths in Georgia, but by the narrowest margin recorded in the quarter-century DPH has been reporting county-level birth and death data. The 19,265 surplus of births over deaths was less than half the 40,000-plus surplus recorded in 2018 and ’19, and not even a quarter of the 83,051 surplus record set in 2007.

As the graph at the right shows, the birth and death lines have been converging for nearly 15 years now. One curiosity in the 2020 death numbers is that Covid-19 accounted for only a little over half of the total increase in the number of deaths over 2019.

Statewide, the total number of deaths skyrocketed from 85,641 in 2019 to 103,114 in 2020 — and Covid-19 was cited as the cause of death in only 9,446 of those 2020 cases.

Even without the Covid-19 deaths, 2020 would have set a record for the total number of deaths and the percentage increase over the previous year. With the Covid-19 deaths included, the number of deaths rose 20.4 percent over 2019; without the Covid-19 deaths, the increase was 9.4 percent. In the 25 years DPH has been reporting data, the number of deaths had never hit five percent in a single year — and the increase was usually much less.

(A cursory review of the DPH data failed to turn up a big chunk of deaths attributable to a single cause of death — although a number of categories appeared to be up by somewhat higher percentages. TIGC will continue to sift through the data for a more complete explanation.)

Also unsurprising: the surplus of births over deaths was concentrated primarily in and around Metro Atlanta and, to a lesser degree, the Georgia coast, as this map illustrates:

Indeed, TIGC's North Georgia, Middle Georgia and South Georgia regions all posted more deaths than births. TIGC's 12 Metro Atlanta counties reported 21,050 more births than deaths while TIGC's seven Coastal Georgia counties posted a surplus of 1,926 births -- this despite the fact that Glynn County suffered the biggest death-to-birth deficit in the state. It posted 313 more deaths than births, and 2020 was only the second time in the past quarter-century that it hasn't recorded more births. Gwinnett County posted the biggest surplus of births over deaths -- 5,331.

Few if any of these numbers are surprising, and they are in line with county-level 2020 Census data that was released last week.

The number of counties reporting more deaths than births began to rise about a decade ago, and was first reported by TIGC several years ago. The big jump from 78 to 118 counties -- more than two-thirds of Georgia's total of 159 counties -- was far and away the biggest one-year increase since the current trendline started rising in the wake of the Great Recession.

The table below shows 2020 births and deaths for all 159 Georgia counties, along with the number of Covid-19 deaths and the percentage of total deaths caused by Covid-19.

Births in Georgia took big drop in 2020, now back at 1998 level

Births in Georgia last year suffered their biggest drop in a decade, falling 3,871, or 3.1 percent, compared to 2019, according to new data published last week by the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH). The drop puts the number of births in Georgia back at 1998 levels.

While the Covid-19 pandemic almost certainly deserves some of the blame for the decline, it seems difficult to pin the entire drop-off on the plague, for a couple of reasons. One is timing. The potential impact of the virus didn’t become apparent here until February and March of last year. If Georgians began making Covid-based decisions to put off having children, the effect of those delays wouldn’t have shown up until later in the year. The public DPH database includes breakdowns by county and other factors, but not by month.

A second reason that the coronavirus is probably not entirely to blame for the drop-off is that it represents something of a continuation of a pattern that had been taking shape for more than a decade. After years of relatively steady growth, the state suffered a big reversal in the number of births in the wake of the Great Recession. Starting in 2008, Georgia began a run of six straight years of falling births. It looked like a turnaround might have been taking shape around 2014, but it sputtered pretty quickly, as this chart shows.

Births in Georgia peaked in 2007 at 150,804 before beginning the post-recession collapse. The 2020 number is 28,425 births below the 2007 peak and a near-perfect match for the state’s 1998 totals.

In 2020, 112 of the state’s 159 counties reported fewer births than in 2019. In 2019, 75 counties reported fewer births than the in 2018.

DPH is expected to report county-by-county deaths for 2020 within the next few weeks. Given the death toll taken by Covid-19 last year, those numbers in combination with the drop in births virtually guarantees that the state will see another increase in the number of counties reporting more deaths than births.

TIGC was the first to report this trend several years ago. In 2019, 78 of the state’s 159 counties reported more deaths than births, down one from 79 in 2018. This chart shows the stair-step pattern that began developing in the wake of the Great Recession.

Generally, the drop in births took place across the state and was not concentrated in, for instance, rural Georgia. This table shows regional numbers over the past five years.

Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2021 (c)

Global and national trends mirroring developments in God’s Country

Couple of stories bubbled up in the national media this weekend that echo trends we’ve covered here at Trouble in God’s Country.

First, The New York Times leads today’s edition with the best piece I’ve seen yet on the global fertility bust.

About five years ago I began to pick up on the fact that a steadily increasing number of Georgia counties were reporting more deaths than births. As the chart below shows, the number of counties reporting more deaths than births began to tick up around 2010 and has now risen pretty steadily through 2019, the latest year for which county-level birth and death data is available. All but a handful of these counties have been rural.

(The Georgia Department of Public Health should report 2020 data over the next month or so.)

At the time, my focus was exclusively on Georgia and I didn’t know what was driving the change. Not long after first noticing that trend, though, I began to see it as part of a larger pattern of adverse economic, education, and population health trends that were slamming rural Georgia. Given the timing, my conclusion has been that these were trends were “aftershocks” from the Great Recession that hit in 2008 and ’09.

I still think that’s the case, but I’m not sure it explains the global nature of the baby bust. The Times piece suggests, without going into any detail, that the global phenomenon is also largely rural, but it doesn’t take much of a stab at possible causes.

It also suggests that Africa has probably the world’s highest fertility rate, which mirrors another of my TIGC findings: that the pattern of more deaths than births here in Georgia is largely among whites. I touched on this toward the bottom of the last piece I wrote about this: “While 78 counties recorded more overall deaths than births, 103 counties reported more White deaths than White births; only 48 counties reported more Black deaths than Black births.”

I’ve been meaning to loop back to that data point but never have; this gives me another reason to revisit the subject.

The other story that caught my eye this weekend was also in the Times — this report on a movement by a handful of counties in rural eastern Oregon to secede from Oregon and join Idaho.

This mirrors periodic grumbling from south of the gnat line here in Georgia. The most recent instance I’m aware of was a ballot question put to Pierce County Republicans in 2018. It asked whether the hundred-plus “counties South of Macon (should) join together to form the 51st state of South Georgia.” In a stunning display of good sense, Pierce County Republicans rejected that idea by better than two-to-one.

In most respects, the Oregon story is just another example of the urban-rural divide in American politics. It’s similar to the Georgia situation in that Oregon has one overwhelmingly dominant urban area — Portland — whose growth and economic prosperity is outstripping the rest of the state. It’s different, however, in that Portland already dominates the state’s politics, whereas, here in Georgia, Metro Atlanta is just on the cusp of doing so.

In Oregon, rural conservatives are yowling about the liberal policies coming out of Portland and the Democratic-controlled state legislature. Here in Georgia, the rural areas are still holding their own, if only narrowly.

Once this year’s final Census numbers are in, the reapportionment of congressional and legislative seats that will follow will inevitably push more political power into Metro Atlanta — no matter how effective at gerrymandering the Republicans now in command of the General Assembly prove to be.

One topic to watch is the effect reapportionment has on Georgia’s urban-rural tensions. Secession may be a long shot, but it will be interesting to see whether newly empowered urban and suburban legislative delegations (both Democrats and Republicans) begin to revisit funding formulas that have long favored rural Georgia — and how rural Georgia responds to any such development.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2021

Broadband internet expansion no silver bullet for rural Georgia

(Editor’s Note: This column was initially published in today’s edition of the Georgia Recorder. It was submitted as a counterpoint to a piece that ran earlier this week in the Recorder.)

Four years ago, I spoke to the opening day session of the House Rural Development Council about my research into the alarming decline of rural Georgia.  Once I finished my presentation, the first question I got was about a subject I hadn’t even mentioned: rural broadband.

Since that meeting, it’s become clear that the deployment of broadband technology is widely regarded as central to any rural revitalization strategy in the state.  The Georgia General Assembly has created the Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative (GBDI), passed legislation to help local governments prepare for broadband projects, and, most recently, appropriating funds to support broadband deployment in rural Georgia.

Now the Biden Administration is proposing to spend $100 billion on rural broadband as part of its $2 trillion national infrastructure plan.  On Tuesday, Georgia Recorder guest columnist Jay Bailey ballyhooed that proposal as one that could fuel the momentum of the work-at-home movement that took root during the pandemic and help revitalize rural Georgia.

“This trend could remake Georgia’s economic geography over the next decade,” Bailey wrote.  “As an investor, I’m betting heavily on a revival in rural economies across our state.  But in order for rural communities to fully benefit from this trend, they’ll need to have the broadband infrastructure to fully support remote work.”

I’d like to offer a couple of cautionary notes.

First, broadband is no silver bullet for rural Georgia.  It won’t replace shuttered hospitals, failing school systems, or boarded-up businesses.  Running fiber-optic cable to rural Georgia communities already in the throes of population loss and economic decline would be like serving filet mignon to a dying man who just lost his last tooth.

Second, all that filet mignon is really expensive.  Based on research I conducted and wrote about last fall, we’re looking at a price tag of about $2.3 billion to hardwire all the currently unserved areas of rural Georgia; an AJC article cited a $3 billion price tag. 

One local example: It would cost an estimated $8 million to wire just under 1,800 homes and businesses in tiny Baker County, located in deep southwest Georgia.  Between 2013 and 2018, according to government estimates, Baker County lost 7.7 percent of its population and saw its gross domestic product (GDP) fall 14.6 percent. 

With all due deference to the good folks of Baker County, I’m skeptical that $8 million worth of government-funded, high-speed fiber will reverse their current fortunes.  And I think it’s fair to ask: is it worth it?  Does it make sense to spend that kind of money running fiber into communities that people are leaving?

I should add that I write this as a big-spending liberal who has no problem plowing major public investments into important projects.  But they ought to make at least some economic sense, and the government should resist involvement if there are viable market solutions.

In this situation, there are viable market solutions, and here I can write from personal experience.  We moved a year ago from Decatur, where we had AT&T’s 1-gigabit internet service, to rural Oconee County, where the best service I could find was a 50 Mbps-plan from Viasat.  It’s not optimal, but it is adequate – especially for the explosion of remote workers Bailey envisions.

What’s more, satellite-based internet service appears to be on the threshold of a big improvement.  My Viasat service is delivered by a geostationary satellite situated about 23,000 miles above the planet, and slow ping rates – the time it takes to, say, load a web page – can be frustrating. 

As I write this, though, constellations of a new generation of satellites are being assembled a few hundred miles above the earth’s surface.  Known as LEOs, these low-earth orbit satellites are expected to slash ping rates dramatically.  In his column, Bailey acknowledged the potential of technologies other than high-speed fiber, including, as he put it, “even low-earth orbit satellites in some cases.” 

I’m more optimistic and would have edited out his qualifying language.  Elon Musk’s SpaceX Corporation has already launched more than 1,500 refrigerator-sized LEOs and has begun a beta program that it says will deliver download speeds of between 50-and-150 Mbps with unlimited data and latency of 20-to-40 milliseconds.  (It’s coming to Oconee County; we’ve signed up and are expecting our ground equipment in a few weeks.) 

My purpose here is not to promote the satellite industry; it could still crash and burn (literally).  But satellite internet service is available to much of rural Georgia now, and without the massive capital investment and years of construction time that broadband will require. 

My larger point, however, is that the effort to revitalize Georgia’s rural communities needs to begin not with headline-grabbing plans to run fiber to sparsely-populated, poverty-stricken rural counties, but with a focus on more fundamental building blocks.

Bailey envisions a migration of highly-educated knowledge workers from the big city to rural communities that can provide them with high-speed internet.  But without access to quality healthcare, decent schools for their kids, and other quality of life amenities, that won’t happen.  High-speed internet may be necessary to build a vibrant 21st-century economy, but it’s far from sufficient – and it’s not the right first step.

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

New medical study confirms what TIGC has been saying for a year now. You’re welcome.

The American Journal of Preventive Medicine (AJPM) earlier this week published a new statistical study which basically found that American states led by Democratic governors have fared better through the worst of the pandemic than those governed by Republicans.

Opined the authors: “Gubernatorial party affiliation may drive policy decisions that impact COVID-19 infections and deaths across the U.S. Future policy decisions should be guided by public health considerations rather than political ideology.”

Gee, you think?

Actually, I’m glad to see this kind of big academic study. As eye-glazing as it can be in places, it reinforces a lot of the observations I’ve made here at Trouble in God’s Country since Covid-19 rolled in a year ago. Early on, I started noticing differences between between Georgia, where Republican Governor Brian Kemp was famously loathe to impose restrictions because of the pandemic, and North Carolina, where Democratic Governor Roy Cooper acted pretty quickly and decisively to begin closing down his state.

The two states have a lot in common, including demographics, economics, educational levels, and population size. Pretty much from the get-go, North Carolina was performing more Covid-19 tests and reporting more confirmed cases but fewer deaths.

Based on the latest data available from the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker, North Carolina has since significantly out-performed Georgia. As of Thursday, March 11, Georgia, with a population of 10.6 million, had more than a million confirmed and probable cases and 18,117 Covid-19 deaths; North Carolina, whose population is only slightly smaller at 10.4 million, has recorded 879,825 such cases and 11,622 deaths.

A week or so after that first Georgia-North Carolina comparison last March, I posted a new piece that broadened the focus and compared a half-dozen Old South states led by proudly conservative Republicans (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee) to three deep blue West Coast states led by liberal Democratic governors (California, Oregon and Washington).

The two regions had very comparable populations — 51.4 million for the three West Coast states versus 51.9 million for the six Old South states. But the regions’ governors were taking very different approaches in fighting the virus. The governors on the West Coast, which bore the brunt of the virus’s initial attack, took early, dramatic actions to shut down their states and limit the virus’s spread, while the Old South’s GOP governors were openly resisting most public health-driven actions.

At the time of that initial report — not even a month into the pandemic — the West Coast had suffered 543 deaths versus 500 for the Old South, but the Old South was already piling up more cases: more than 24,000 versus just over 18,500 for the West Coast.

I pulled fresh numbers from the CDC’s Covid-19 Data Tracking website on Friday, and the Old South’s performance now looks much worse in comparison to the West Coast (where, again, the virus initially turned Seattle into the public health equivalent of Chernobyl and has continued to savage the California coast) than it did last April. The Old South states have racked up 25,000 more deaths than the West Coast and a million more confirmed and probable cases, as this table details:

The AJPM study found that the Republican-led states had lower case and death rates for the first several months of the pandemic, but that those trend lines crossed — on June 3, 2020, for case rates and a month later, on July 4, for death rates.

That’s generally in line with another TIGC observation. I tracked county-level case and death rates on an almost daily basis for the first several months of the pandemic by the political party each county sided with in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election. Early on, the virus did most of its damage in urban areas that were heavily populated and largely Democratic, such as Metro Atlanta; the virus was indeed slow to show up in sparsely-populated rural areas of Georgia that largely sided with Governor Kemp and other Republicans.

But it did get there — and, just as the authors of the AJPM study found, the trend lines eventually crossed. By my calculations, the death rate in counties that went for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams had been higher — that is, worse — from the opening days of the pandemic through most of August; they crossed on August 25, 2020. The case rate trend lines were a little slower to intersect, but finally crossed on September 9.

11-3-covid-data-table.jpg (328×125)

I took another look at this phenomenon following last year’s presidential election and found the same pattern, as this table to the right shows. By election day, President Donald J. Trump’s Georgia counties had significantly worse case rates, death rates and 14-day case rates than his then-Democratic challenger, Joe Biden.

The authors of the AJPM study were careful to avoid asserting causality in the statistical relationship between the governors’ party affiliation and their states’ Covid-19 results. And, indeed, there are a variety of factors other than politics that probably contribute to different outcomes. In an early piece speculating that rural Georgia might eventually be harder hit than the state’s urban areas, I cited the facts that rural Georgians were generally in poorer health than their city cousins and had access to much frailer health care delivery systems. At that point, the political differences were just beginning to come into focus.

But, statistical limitations aside, it now seems silly to ignore the obvious political relationships and implications. It’s often said that the 50 states function as laboratories for American democracy. For a year now, that’s clearly been the case where America’s response to Covid-19 is concerned. But it’s a shame we all wound up being used as human guinea pigs.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2021

Long-time friend and long-ago colleague Terry L. Wells contributed to this article. He first spotted and posted to Facebook an article about the AJPM study, without which I probably would have missed the whole thing.