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New county-level GDP data suggests rural Georgia has, for a change, improved relative to Metro Atlanta

For the first time in years, rural Georgia in 2019 actually gained a little ground on Metro Atlanta in terms of economic output, according to new data released Thursday by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA).

The new county-level gross domestic product (GDP) data shows that, from 2018 to 2019, TIGC’s 56 South Georgia counties and 43 Middle Georgia counties grew their GDPs by 3.8 percent and 2.3 percent, respectively, while the 12-county Metro Atlanta region and North Georgia’s 41 counties grew by only 1.5 percent and .8 percent, respectively.

As TIGC reported a year ago, fully three-fourths of Georgia’s GDP is produced in Metro Atlanta and North Georgia, but the 106 mostly rural counties from Macon south whittled away slightly at that difference in 2019. In 2018, 75.4 percent of the state’s $538.8 billion economy was generated in Metro Atlanta and North Georgia. In 2019, the Metro Atlanta-North Georgia share of the 2019 $547.8 billion GDP was down two-tenths of a point, to 75.2 percent.

Put another way, 63.7 percent of the $8.67 billion in 2019 growth took place in Metro Atlanta and North Georgia versus 36.3 percent in the combined Middle Georgia, South Georgia and Coastal Georgia regions.

Moreover, the number of counties that saw their GDPs decline dropped from 31 in 2018 to 22 in 2019, and most were scattered loosely across the state, in ones and two — as this map suggests.

That said, it remains to be seen whether this new GDP represents a turning point or a mere pause in a long-term trend, but it marks the first time in about a decade — since the Great Recession — that the gap between Metro Atlanta and the rest of the state has not widened. Metro Atlanta was initially hit harder by that economic downturn, but it recovered faster and, until 2019, had continued to grow its share of the state’s economic output.

These latest results appear to owe to several factors, including:

Relatively anemic growth in the 12-county Metro Atlanta region. Two Metro Atlanta counties suffered actual declines in their GDP. DeKalb saw its near-$38 billion economy slip one-tenth of a percentage point while Clayton, with more than $17 billion in GDP, dropped 1.5 percent. Even Gwinnett County, which is accustomed to robust growth, grew its $44 billion economy by less than one percent. The best performers in Metro Atlanta were suburban counties — Henry County, on the southside, with 6.7 percent in growth, and Cherokee County, to the north, with a 4.6 percent growth rate.

What may be a sudden downturn in a previously vibrant area of northeast Georgia. In particular, seven contiguous counties in northeast Georgia (see map at right) that had been posting relatively impressive year-over-year growth all saw their numbers decline in 2019. Included in this group is Oglethorpe County, whose 10.3 percent decline — from $317.5 million to $284.7 million was the worst in the state. These seven counties all had among the lowest growth rates in the state.

A resurgence in southwest Georgia. If typically vibrant counties in northeast Georgia suffered an unexpected decline in 2019, 10 counties in usually beleaguered deep southwest Georgia enjoyed a major uptick. Baker County, which had been losing population and GDP for several years, posted the biggest one-year gain in the state: 21.9 percent. That grew Baker County’s GDP from $72.3 million to $88.1 million in a single year. But it was only one of 10 contiguous deep southwest Georgia counties that posted double-digit increases (see map at left). Many of them were, to be sure, bouncing back from declines in previous years, but the appearance of a regional trend would seem to be significant.

Copyright (c) Trouble in God’s Country 2020

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Your TIGC weekend Covid-19 update: Things are bad and getting worse

Last weekend TIGC reported that 70 Georgia counties qualified as Covid-19 “red zones” and that the bug appeared to be mounting a new assault on Metro Atlanta from its fortifications in the North Georgia mountains.

Today we can report that the number of counties whose seven-day rates exceed 100 cases per 100,000 people — the “red zone” threshold set by the White House Coronovirus Task Force — is up to 96, and all 12 Metro Atlanta counties are now included in that group.

This is, obviously, part of a national trend. The AJC reported this morning that Georgia is one of 48 states that qualify as red zones. But, as usual, virus’s attacks are far from uniform, and it seems to move from one region to another in an almost deliberate manner. These two maps show its progression out of the North Georgia hills over the past week.

At the same time, the virus seems to be giving much of rural Middle and South Georgia a bit of a breather. This doesn’t mean that the virus has gone away, just that — for the moment — the seven-day case rate has fallen below the 100 cases per 100,000 people level.

But that could change, and quickly. As the bug has re-invaded Metro Atlanta, it also seems to be knifing its way back down I-75 and could easily branch off into the rural counties to the east or west.

At the moment, Whitfield and Murray counties, side-by-side neighbors on the Tennessee line, jointly constitute the hottest spot in the state. Combined, their seven-day case rate is 511.27 per 100,000 people — more than five times what it takes to qualify as a Covid-19 “red zone” — and their combined seven-day death rate is 7.59 per 100,000. The state average for the past seven days was 1.56 deaths per 100,000. The state’s three largest counties — Fulton, Gwinnett and DeKalb — had seven-day death rates of .45 per 100,000 people, .72, and .76, respectively.

The cause of the Whitfield-Murray outbreak isn’t clear. The Daily Citizen-News, the newspaper in the Whitfield county seat of Dalton, has covered the outbreak — including stories on the reluctance of local officials to impose a mask mandate — and editorialized about it. But a limited scan of its online stories (before the paywall came up) failed to find anything about what might be driving the outbreak.

In an editorial published today (November 21), the Daily Citizen-News noted Whitfield’s unhappy standing at the top of the new case-rate list and lamented the lack of citizen observance of recommended public health practices.

” … (M)any of us ignore the advice of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as we refuse to wear masks and/or practice social distancing. The lack of masks and social distancing is evident all over town. We have to do better,” the newspaper added.

(c) Trouble in God’s Country 2020

Covid-19 Update: Much of Metro Atlanta now a red zone

The spread of Covid-19 that had turned virtually all of northwest Georgia into a “red zone” now appears to have re-invaded Metro Atlanta.

As TIGC reported in a couple of recent posts, most of the counties in the northwestern corner of the state had been posting 7-day case rates of at least 100 new cases per 100,000 residents, which would put them in what the White House Coronovirus Task Force considers a “red zone.”

Until recently, the bug seemed to be doing most of its recent and current damage in a cluster of nearly 20 contiguous counties in north Georgia, but it hadn’t re-entered the Metro Atlanta region with enough force to push the area back into the seven-day red zone. Now it has, as this map illustrates.

Indeed, the AJC reported Friday that the head of the Cobb and Douglas county health departments had issued a special warning because of rising rates in the area. The newspaper quoted Dr. Janet Memark, the director for the Cobb-Douglas health district, as saying the rates were rising even though testing was down, and that she thought state data underestimated the actual spread of the virus.

“It’s decreased demand [for testing] but yet the percentage positive is going up,” she told the AJC. “I do think we have some substantial transmission that’s happening.”

The only North Metro and North Georgia counties that escaped red zone numbers were Gilmer, Dawson and Forsyth, and they didn’t miss it by much; their seven-day case rates were 95.5, 99.7 and 90.7, respectively.

On Metro Atlanta’s western edge, Douglas and Paulding counties posted 7-day case rates in the mid-80s, and the counties on the southern edge of the Atlanta region — Heard, Coweta and Fayette — were cooler still, with case rates in the 50s and 60s.

But the four biggest counties in Metro Atlanta all posted seven-day case rates that put them in the red zone: Fulton at 113.3; Gwinnett, 133; DeKalb, 129.4, and Cobb, 106.8

All told, 70 counties qualified for red zone status as of Saturday’s report from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH), and for a change the southern part of the state appeared to be somewhat cooler than the northern half, as this map illustrates.

While there were obviously clusters of counties in Middle and South Georgia whose numbers put them in the red zone, the vast majority — again, for a change — appeared to be seeing at least a brief respite from the virus’s siege through those parts of the state.

(c) Trouble in God’s Country 2020

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Trump counties taking the hardest Covid-19 hit; 14-day case rates nearly 30% higher

I noted back in September (here and here) that Covid-19 case and death rates in Georgia’s Republican-voting rural counties had squeaked past those in the state’s more heavily-populated Democratic counties.

I’ve been keeping an eye on that trend, but haven’t bothered to write much about it since then. Last week’s presidential election results, however, seem to invite a fresh look.

As a little more preface, it seems worth noting that the virus did the vast majority of its early damage in major urban areas, including Metro Atlanta, while rural areas seemed skeptical it would ever find its way to them. It did, of course, and has been exacting its heaviest toll on most of those rural areas for a couple of months now.

For this update, I’ve pulled the Georgia Department of Public Health’s (DPH) Covid-19 status report for election day, November 3rd, and sorted it by counties that went (according to the latest election results published by the Secretary of State’s office) for President Trump versus those that went for the Democratic nominee and apparent president-elect, Joe Biden.

This table summarizes that data sort.

As of November 3, the 30 Biden counties had better overall case rates, death rates and 14-day case rates than the 129 Trump counties. Even with a significantly smaller population, the Trump counties have now suffered more total deaths than the Biden counties — 4,017 to 3,814. Perhaps even more worrying are the 14-day case rates, which are a leading indicator of things to come. In the combined Trump counties, that rate was, as of November 3rd, 27.6 percent worse than the Biden counties.

Because the virus is oblivious to county lines, it’s difficult to demonstrate county-to-county correlations between Covid-19 rates and Trump-Biden voting splits.

And, indeed, there are any number of examples of counties whose Covid-19 performance doesn’t match its politics. Glascock County, for instance, gave Trump 89.6 percent of its total vote (second only to Brantley County) but has the fourth-best case rate in the state. (At the same time, and consistent with the 14-day case rate pattern referenced above, Glascock’s 14-day case rate is just under 300 cases per 100,000 people, easily enough to put it in the White House Coronovirus Task Force’s red zone.)

Just to the west of Glascock, though, Hancock County delivered nearly 72 percent of its vote to Biden but, as of November 3rd, had far and away the state’s worst death rate (549.25 per every 100,000 people) and one of the worst case rates.

If, however, clear county-level correlations are difficult to find, mapping the data does bring regional pictures into some focus. First, this map (at right) shows Trump-Biden split as of the general election results available Sunday, November 8th, on the Georgia Secretary of State’s website. (These results appear to be nearly complete, but haven’t been officially certified yet.)

Now compare that general election map with maps below of election-day Covid-19 data from DPH. In these maps, I’ve used the same red/blue color scheme I used in the political map, but here they tell different stories. In each case, counties shown in blue had Covid-19 case rates, death rates, or 14-day case rates that were better (lower) than the state average reflected in the November 3rd DPH data; counties in red had worse (higher) rates. The darker the shade of blue or red, the better or worse they were compared to the state average.

None of the Covid-19 maps is a perfect match for the political map above, obviously, but a comparison does tell several stories. Probably the most obvious is that heavily-Democratic Metro Atlanta is now beating the state average on all three Covid-19 metrics mapped above. Early on, it bore the brunt of the virus’s attack, and still isn’t out of the woods, but now has easily the best overall case rate, death rate and 14-day case rate numbers in the state.

A second is that the swath of heavily-Republican counties in east-central and interior southeast Georgia is now suffering higher than average Covid-19 case and death rates, with more of a mixed picture on 14-day case rates. The virus took its time getting to this part of Georgia, but has now been raging there for several weeks.

Southwest Georgia, though, seems to be cooling off. This politically-mixed region of the state still carries high case and death rates, the results of an early Covid-19 attack that at one time gave this part of the state some of the worst virus numbers on the planet. But it’s 14-day case rates — reflecting current trends — are now among the lowest in the state.

The northwestern corner of the state, meanwhile, seems to be on fire, as the map to the left illustrates. Perhaps the most conservative and Republican region of the state, Northwest Georgia had for the most part avoided the worst of the virus, until recently. As of election day, 18 contiguous counties in that part of the state had 14-day case rates of 200 per 100,000 people or more.

Does any of this demonstrate a cause-and-effect relationship between local political inclinations and the impact of Covid-19? It’s probably a little early to draw that conclusion, although the question certainly seems a fair one to raise.

Early on, it was possible to foresee (even without considering politics) that rural areas might well suffer more from the virus than their city cousins, primarily because they were home to older, less healthy populations that had less access to healthcare and whose healthcare systems were often frail and sometimes non-existent. (TIGC said as much in this post back in March.)

But the virus has clearly become one of the most heavily politicized issues in America in the months since the pandemic rolled in. President Trump has openly feuded with his public health experts and for the most part refused to wear a mask or encourage Americans to do so, while former Vice President Biden and state and local Democratic leaders have taken the opposite tack. (Trump, of course, contracted the virus, but recovered after several days at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and a significant number of his close aides have also come down with the bug.)

It’s also worth noting that Georgia is part of a national trend. The Daily Yonder, which covers rural issues, has documented Covid-19’s spread across rural America (see maps below) as well as the political overlap.

“Counties that voted by a landslide (more than a 20-point margin) for Trump in 2016 have a recent infection rate 75% higher than counties that voted by a landslide for Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016,” The Yonder reported in this piece last week.

It remains to be seen whether a President Biden can prevail upon rural citizens and their leaders to follow conventional public health counsel on practices like wearing masks and social distancing, let alone how long that might take to have an effect. But it’s clear now that changes will be required to bring the virus to heel in the state’s — and nation’s — rural areas.

(c) Trouble in God’s Country 2020

Early TIGC notes on the 2020 election and the two political Georgias

Trouble in God’s Country’s preliminary take on Tuesday’s still-being-counted presidential election results:

First, Georgia’s overall political map won’t change much if at all. President Trump, the Republican incumbent, and Democratic nominee Joe Biden are carrying the same counties their parties have carried in the past few election cycles, as this map illustrates. Trump will carry the 130 counties shown in various shades of red (the darker the red, the bigger his margin) and Biden will dominate in the 29 shown in mostly paler shades of blue (ditto on the shading).

The good news for Democrats is that — based on vote counts pulled from the Georgia Secretary of State’s office this morning — Biden is generally out-performing Stacey Abrams, the party’s 2018 gubernatorial nominee (who, of course, did pretty well, coming within two points of defeating Republican Brian Kemp).

Biden’s doing a little better than Abrams in about half the counties she carried in 2018 and, perhaps even more important, added to the Democratic share in fast-growing suburban and exurban counties that are still solidly Republican, as this table illustrates:

Significant suburban and exurban counties where Biden cut into the GOP margin

The flip side of that, of course, is that Trump is largely lagging behind Governor Brian Kemp’s 2018 performance, if only, in many cases, by a fraction of a point. But his share of the overall vote trails Kemp’s in 129 counties, is better in 29 others and appears to be dead-even in one (Talbot County).

Also clear from these early returns is where the next major partisan ground war will be fought in Georgia. If Biden has gained ground in Metro Atlanta’s northern ‘burbs, the Republicans appear to be trying to build a political Maginot Line of sorts that runs from Rome and Floyd County on the Alabama border pretty much due east to the South Carolina line.

The North Georgia Hills are now home base for the Georgia GOP.

The two dozen or so counties north of that line, especially those along the border with Tennessee and North Carolina, gave Trump 70 and 80 percent of their vote — as they did Kemp in 2018.

(At this writing, Trouble in God’s Country is unable to confirm reports that Republicans are planning to build a physical wall across that line (let alone that Mexico will pay for it) or that the few Democrats still hiding in the North Georgia hills are being rounded up and deported to Cobb and Gwinnett counties.)

There are, of course, still dozens of solidly Republican rural counties in Middle and South Georgia, but the difference between them and their North Georgia counterparts is that most of them are losing population and shrinking economically. North Georgia is, for the most part, growing.

From TIGC’s perspective, the bottom line in these early numbers is that — no matter who carries the state or wins the presidency — Georgia is continuing to tear itself apart politically. Only 14 of the state’s 159 counties were decided by 10 points or less. Trump carried one county (Brantley) just over 90 percent of the vote; 24 with more than 80 percent; 42 with more than 70 percent, and another 43 with 60 percent-plus.

Further reinforcing that point: Biden is getting 70 percent of his vote from 29 largely urban and suburban counties he’s carrying (and that number will almost certainly rise as the final votes come in from Fulton County and other metro area counties). Trump, meanwhile, is pulling 66 percent of his vote from the 130 largely rural counties where he’s leading.

Some 40 years ago, some editorial writers and civic leaders began to sound the alarm about the widening economic divide between what came to be called “the two Georgias.” At the time, most political leaders were loathe to acknowledge the problem. Today, though, it’s clear that there are two political Georgias, and it’s far from clear how they can be put back together.

Will 2020 be rural Georgia’s last stand?

This year’s presidential election — and tomorrow’s election-day voting — is shaping up as another rematch in the long-running political war between urban and rural Georgia. The big question is whether rural Georgia can hold off Metro Atlanta’s rising urban and suburban tide one more time.

While demographics are clearly working against the state’s rural regions, they have managed to hang on at least until now; in 2018, rural voters turned out in bigger droves than their urban counterparts and dragged Brian Kemp across the finish line and into the governor’s office.

There’s little evidence in this year’s political tea leaves to suggest that rural Georgia’s task has gotten any easier. One of the biggest clues has been President Trump’s own campaign strategy. The fact that he’s been here twice in the past two weeks makes it clear that Georgia is indeed in play (as do virtually all the recent state polls), but it’s the way he’s campaigned here that’s the dead give-away.

Instead of making a public play for the suburban women whose votes he publicly covets, he’s gone instead to Macon and Rome, regional communities that anchor surrounding rural areas that gave him overwhelming majorities in 2016. Clearly, Trump’s strategic objective is to juice his rural base and maximize its turnout, not to try to reclaim suburbs that may be slipping away.

Beyond Trump’s own campaign tactics, the most attention-getting data point I’ve found is that the 29 counties that voted for Democrat Stacey Abrams in 2018 have cast 345,304 more absentee and in-person early votes than voters in the 130 largely rural counties that sided with Kemp. I mined that figure from the excellent georgiavotes.com website, which pulls data from the Georgia Secretary of State’s website and organizes it for easy public consumption.

It’s difficult (for me, at least) to read those numbers in any way except that the Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, has probably built up a pretty good advantage in the early vote and will begin tomorrow morning with a fair Georgia lead over Trump. The question for Trump’s rural Georgia supporters is whether they can replicate the 2018 turnout advantage and overcome what looks like an early Biden wave.

In 2018, the 130 largely rural counties that went for Kemp produced higher turnouts than the Abrams counties in both the early vote and the total vote. In the early vote, the Kemp counties produced 34.3 percent of their eligible vote versus 31.7 percent for the Abrams counties; by the time all the votes were tallied, the Kemp counties’ turnout was 62.1 percent versus 60.6 for the Abrams counties. That difference was arguably decisive.

So far this year, the Democrats appear to be doing a good bit better: the early vote turnout in the 29 Abrams counties (driven no doubt by Covid-19 concerns as well as heightened interest in the presidential race) is 51.8 percent versus 52.4 percent in the Kemp counties — a mere half-point difference.

Even with the improved numbers, Biden and the Democrats face some notable soft spots. One problem that seems to be repeating itself is the turnout performance difference between Metro Atlanta’s white north side and black south side.

For example, in the 2018 governor’s race, heavily white and overwhelmingly Republican Forsyth County, on Metro Atlanta’s northern edge, turned out 64.9 percent of its registered voters and gave Kemp 70.6 percent of those votes; the south side’s Clayton County, heavily black and Abrams’s strongest county, delivered only 54.4 percent of its available vote.

This year, the divide is even bigger so far: 67.6 percent of Forsyth’s registered voters have cast their ballots versus only 43.6 percent Clayton County’s. Other heavily-black, Democratic counties also seem to be under-performing in the early vote: Bibb County at 46 percent; Dougherty, 33.5 percent, and Richmond, 43.8 percent, among others.

A final question is whether the state will continue the red-to-blue shift that has been taking place over the past several election cycles, and all these challenges are, of course, intertwined. Democrats lost Georgia by five points in the 2016 presidential race and by less than two in the governor’s race in 2018. If they can gain that much ground again this year, Biden will carry Georgia and win its 16 electoral votes. Pumping up those turnout percentages in Bibb, Dougherty and Richmond, et al, is probably key to that.

(c) Trouble in God’s Country 2020

North Georgia Trump Country now also a Covid-19 red zone

When President Trump goes to Rome, Ga., on Sunday, he’ll be visiting a part of Georgia that is deep red on two counts. It’s a part of the state he carried with upwards of 70 percent of the vote in 2016, and it’s also an area that is currently suffering one of the state’s hottest Covid-19 outbreaks.

17 NW Georgia “red zone” counties

As of Friday’s report from the Georgia Department of Public Health, 17 contiguous counties in the northwest corner of Georgia, including Floyd County, reported seven-day case rates of at least 100 per 100,000 people, the threshold for being designated a “red zone” by White House Coronavirus Task Force. Floyd County’s seven-day case rate was 235.2 — more than double the case rate required to qualify as a red zone. In the region, only Whitfield and Gordon counties had higher seven-day case rates — 281.8 and 236, respectively.

Those counties are also part of one of the state’s reddest political regions. Each one of those counties gave Trump at least 70 percent of its vote over Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race — as did all the other counties in the northernmost swath of the state. (The map here shows all the North Georgia counties that gave Trump at least 70 percent of their vote in 2016.)

Why the president feels a need to campaign two days before this year’s General Election in a region he carried so heavily in 2016 is a question we’ll leave for others. But it will be interesting to see how much masking and social-distancing will be practiced at the Rome rally.

Ranking Georgia counties’ response to Covid-19: A first stab

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