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.
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