We reported last week that the collective Covid-19 death rates in the largely rural and sparsely populated Georgia counties that sided with Republican Brian Kemp in the 2018 governor’s race had surpassed that of the mostly urban and densely populated counties that went for his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams.
TIGC also reported last week that the case rate trend lines were converging. We can now report that those lines have indeed crossed and that the 130 mostly rural counties that voted for Kemp and narrowly nudged him into the governor’s office now have slightly higher Covid-19 case rates than the 29 counties that went for Abrams.
Based on TIGC calculations using data pulled from the Georgia Department of Public Health’s daily Covid-19 status updates, the case rate lines appear to have crossed on September 9th, as the chart below shows. They had run at nearly identical rates for several days before that and have been steadily separating ever since.
The case rate trend lines have been separating slowly but steadily since they crossed about a week ago. The table below shows the case rates — the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people — as the numbers tightened up around September 6th, crossed on the 9th, and then continued to separate through the 17th.
Those trends can of course change. All it would take is the emergence of a new Covid-19 hotspot in one of the state’s larger urban — and typically Democratic — counties.
For the moment, though, the current data would appear to put to rest early thinking that Covid-19 would do more damage in heavily populated urban areas. While it clearly struck first in such areas — including, of course, Metro Atlanta — it has since found its way into rural areas. Indeed, the interesection of the case and death rate trendlines coincides generally with the virus’s Sherman-like march to the sea across the state’s rural east-central and southeastern counties.
Here’s a little breaking news on the coronavirus front: The Covid-19 death rate is now higher, collectively, in the Georgia counties that voted for Governor Brian Kemp in 2018 than in those that went for his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams. What’s more, the difference in the rate of confirmed cases is narrowing dramatically.
This is a little bit of a surprise. Early on, the virus hit densely-populated urban Democratic precincts much harder than remote, sparsely-populated Republican communities, and there was a good bit of credible speculation that the gap between the two might never fully close.
The New York Times took a deep dive into national data in late May and posited that while case and death rates were rising in conservative areas, it wasn’t “on a scale that would close the gap in the virus’s impact on red and blue counties.”
That’s no longer true in Georgia. The Covid-19 death rate in the 130 mostly rural counties carried by Kemp in 2018 squeaked past that of the 29 largely urban counties that went for Abrams on August 25th.
The Kemp and Abrams death rate trend lines converged through the middle part of August. They were nearly identical by August 24th — 47.52 deaths per 100,000 people in the Abrams counties versus 47.43 in the Kemp counties. The next day, the lines crossed — 48.37 deaths per 100,000 people in the Abrams counties versus 48.52 in the Kemp counties — and they’ve been separating, fairly rapidly, ever since, as the graph above shows.
The Abrams counties have so far suffered more overall deaths than the Kemp counties: 3,095 out of population of 5.67 million versus 2,833 out of a population of 4.95 million. But even that may be changing. Since the Kemp and Abrams death rate trendlines crossed on August 25th, there have been 785 Covid-19 deaths in Georgia. Of those, 353 occurred in the Abrams counties while 432 took place in Kemp country.
While the Abrams counties are still reporting higher rates of confirmed Covid-19 cases than the Kemp counties, those trend lines are also converging. On August 25th — the day the death rate trend lines crossed — the 29 Abrams counties had a combined confirmed case rate of 2316.7 cases per 100,000 while the combined case rate for the 130 Kemp counties was 2178.6, a difference of 6.3 percent. By September 8th, the difference was down to 1.9 percent — 2529.9 cases per 100,000 people for the Abrams counties versus 2483.2 for the Kemp counties.
Put another way, during that August 25-September 8 period, the Abrams counties reported a total of 12,089 new confirmed Covid-19 cases while the Kemp counties reported 15,069 new cases.
These trends can, of course, shift. The recent death and case rate trends appear to have been driven largely by the virus’s Sherman-like march across east-central and southeast Georgia, which is heavily rural and went overwhelmingly for Kemp. All it would take to alter — indeed, reverse — these patterns would be a major outbreak in one or more of the major urban counties.
Still, the current data and trends would appear to put to rest the early thinking that the virus would be satisfied with feasting on Democrats in densely-populated urban areas. It took it a while, but it finally found its way to virtually every corner of the state’s rural areas, which have older, less healthy populations and frailer healthcare delivery systems. Those Republican hunting grounds now appear to be just as fruitful for Covid-19 as the big Democratic cities.
This morning’s AJC led with a blockbuster story based on an apparently confidential White House report that gave Georgia the dubious honor of generating the biggest increase in new Covid-19 cases in the nation last week.
According to the AJC, the White House report said Georgia produced about 216 new cases for every 100,000 people for the week that ended this past Friday, August 14th. The paper quoted the report as saying that figure was “about double” the national average.
What the story didn’t include (probably because it wasn’t detailed in the White House report) was any kind of breakdown on how the bug is affecting different parts of the state.
Not to worry. Trouble in God’s Country is here to help.
First, a quick caveat. As I’ve noted before, my arithmetic produces slightly different results than those found in the Georgia Department of Public Health’s daily Covid-19 updates. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that I usually work only with in-state numbers, those attributable to specific counties, and omit cases DPH classifies as out-of-state or unknown.
The bigger reason, though, is that we’re using slightly different population numbers to calculate the case rates, which is a little weird. I pull my county population numbers from DPH’s public OASIS database, and I know those numbers are taken directly from the Census Bureau. I don’t know exactly where DPH’s Covid-related population data comes from, but it’s slightly different from the ones I’ve got.
Still, the numbers are, as the old saying goes, close enough for both government work and semi-retired, part-time bloggers.
In this case, my arithmetic puts the state’s case rate for the week of August 7 through August 14 at 205.2 per 100,000 people (versus the 216 figure cited in the AJC article). The total number of new in-state cases added during that period was 21,791.
Working with those numbers, we can begin to offer some observations about how different types and areas of the state are behaving now that we’re nearly six months into the pandemic.
Indeed, the factoid included in the AJC story that Georgia’s state-level increase of a little over 200 cases per 100,000 people is about double the national average is helpful: it gives us a point of reference for judging county-level and regional Covid-19 behavior not just within the state, but against the nation. It’s not a pretty picture.
Some 146 of Georgia’s 159 counties posted case rates of more than 100 — roughly the national average, based on the AJC’s reporting — for the August 7-August 14 period. But there’s a wide span within that group.
For that week, Appling County, located in deep southeast Georgia and home to fewer than 20,000 people, posted the most horrific numbers: a one-week case rate of 728.8. But it was hardly alone in that region. Indeed, one of the things the Covid-19 data suggests is that the bug acts and moves on what appears to be a regional basis.
This map below highlights 37 Georgia counties that posted case rates of at least 300 per 100,000 people from August 7 through August 14. As usual, the darker the color, the higher the increase in case rates.
Twenty-four of those counties make up an inter-connected chain of counties that now runs well over 200 miles from Lincoln County on the north end south to Clinch County on the Florida line.
Most of the rest of the counties posting exceptionally high case-rate increases — three times the national average — are scattered loosely around the state, although there do appear to be multi-county clusters in the southwest corner of the state and in northwest Georgia.
Clearly, rural areas of the state that were spared major infection rates in the early stages of the pandemic are now under siege.
Also apparent from this map (and the data) is that Metro Atlanta and the southwest Georgia cluster surrounding Albany and Dougherty County, both of which were savaged early in the pandemic, are so far avoiding the worst levels of increases now afflicting rural areas across east-central and southeast Georgia.
The table below lists all the counties that suffered case rate increases of at least 300 per 100,000 people from August 7 through August 14. The sort is by the case-rate increase, from highest to lowest.
Fifteen of these counties posted one-week case rate increases of 400 or more — in other words, roughly four times the national average, based on the AJC reporting.
I’ll try to loop back and flesh out a more complete regional analysis in the next couple of days.
Over the weekend, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator, told CNN the Covid-19 plague’s assault on rural areas is now on a par with its toll on more densely-populated urban areas.
That’s certainly true here in Georgia. In fact, case rates are currently growing faster in rural counties than in major metropolitan centers, and rural areas by and large now have higher case rates.
To put this in perspective, Georgia is now one of 21 states accorded the dubious honor of being a Covid-19 “red zone” by Dr. Birx’s White House task force. That group recently began assigning that designation to states that meet one of two criteria — first, that the number of cases per 100,000 people rises by 100 or more over a seven-day period, or, second, that the “positivity rate” is higher than 10 percent.
Georgia makes the cut on both counts. Its cases and case rates have been rising relentlessly pretty much since the pandemic started, and its positivity rate has been floating above 10 percent for several weeks. Tuesday’s report (August 4th) from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) puts the cumulative positivity rate at 11 percent and the rate for the batch of tests reported yesterday at 12.7 percent.
As of Tuesday’s report, 141 of the state’s 159 counties qualified as red zones in their own right, as the map to the left is intended to show. Each of the shaded counties posted increases of at least 100 cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days; the darker the shade, the bigger the increase. (The blank spots on the map represent the 18 counties that held their case rate increases under the 100-per-100,000-people threshold over the past seven days.)
One key story for Trouble in God’s Country is that Covid-19 is continuing to move tsunami-like across rural east-central Georgia. TIGC first reported in early July that the bug seemed to have finished savaging southwest Georgia and appeared to be moving, Sherman-like, eastward to the sea. The latest results make it clear that march is still underway.
While 141 of Georgia’s 159 counties posted increases of at least 100 per 100,000 people between July 28 and August 4, only 29 of those counties hit what might be considered stratospheric increases of 300 new cases per 100,000 in that same period.
As map below shows, 15 of those 29 counties are part of a connected chain covering much of east-central Georgia, an area that largely seeemed to escape the bug in its earlier phases. It runs more than 150 miles from Richmond County at its northern end to Atkinson County at the southernmost point.
And the case rates in most of the counties in that chain now dwarf those in Metro Atlanta. Such counties as Jeff Davis, Jefferson, Wayne, Toombs and Johnson, among others, have case rates of well over 2,000 per 100,000 people. The county with the highest case rate in Metro Atlanta, Gwinnett, has a current case rate of 1,874.18. (On the map, the number shown beneath each county’s name is the number of cases per 100,000 people that each county’s case rate increased between July 28 and August 4.)
Indeed, generally speaking, the smaller a county’s population, the bigger its recent increase in Covid-19 cases. As the table below shows, the 118 counties with populations of less than 50,000 people posted bigger increases in case rates than any of the other groups of counties with larger populations.
Interestingly, it was the groups of mid-sized groups of counties — 16 counties with populations between 50,000 and 100,000 — that posted the smallest increases (although those increases still qualified them for “red zone” status). There is no doubt a variety of reasons for this, but a couple of possibilities suggest themselves. One is that the group includes counties — like Dougherty and Floyd, among others — that suffered most of their damage in the early days of the pandemic, and their recent increases are relatively smaller. A second may be that many of these counties — Barrow, Walton, Jackson, Coweta and others — are in various stages of evolving from rural to exurban or suburban counties and have reached a stage where they can attract and sustain stronger healthcare delivery systems.
It’s really not that big a leap. In that 2016 piece I didn’t spend much time on population trends. I used the relative populations of South Georgia and Gwinnett as a jumping off point to compare their performance in economics, education, health status and other areas.
This time around, I found myself digging into county-level and regional population trends and pretty quickly got to the nut of the problem.
South Georgia needs more babies.
Actually, the problem is even more basic than that: it needs more young people who can produce babies.
Truth is, much of the planet has been slacking off in the procreation department for a while now. I would argue that this isn’t altogether a bad thing (because, I-285), but, globally, it’s gotten to be a head-scratcher and has a lot of demographers in a dither; one even called it an “epidemic.”
Things reached a point several years ago, according to The Washington Post, that school children in Denmark were being taught how to get pregnant – not only that, but that having children was patriotic. A Danish travel agency launched “Do it for Denmark,” an ad campaign that encouraged couples to take vacations and conceive children.
When a Swedish couple has a new baby, the Post reported, either the mother or father can take off 480 days and still receive 80 percent of their previous salaries. France and Germany pay a monthly allowance to families with children under the age of 20, and France grants a host of other discounts (including for public transportation and movie theaters) to the country’s children.
Now, of course, all this smacks just a teeny bit of socialism, so it’s probably going to be a tough sell in South Georgia. And given Georgia’s fondness for abstinence-only sex education, I’m not sure teaching South Georgia students how to have children has much of a chance either, although I don’t really think it’s necessary; I’m pretty sure they’ve been figuring that out on their own for a while now.
The real problem is they’re leaving South Georgia and doing it somewhere else. Between 2014 and 2019, the 56 counties that make up Trouble in God’s Country’s South Georgia region saw an exodus of just over 5,000 men and women between the prime family-building ages of 18 and 35. The perfectly predictable result of this trend is that the region is producing fewer babies. South Georgia’s baby crop peaked in 2007 at just under 18,000 and has been on a steady downhill slide ever since; in 2019, the number of new births was 14,153 (which was actually up a little from the year before).
Another part of South Georgia’s demographic problem is that its population is getting older and more and more of them are dying (or, as I once heard an actual demographer describe the situation, “aging out” of the population). The region is still producing more births than deaths, but (as the graph below shows) those trend lines are clearly converging.
Over the past five years, South Georgia has seen its number of births decline by an average of about 150 a year while deaths have risen by nearly 250 a year. If that trend continues, the two lines will cross in 2023 – and that’s before factoring in the impact of Covid-19 on the region.
Which is likely to be considerable. Scholars at the Brookings Institution issued a report in June forecasting that Covid-19 might cut total births in the U.S. by 500,000.
In 2018 (the last year for which we have death data), 28 of the 56 South Georgia counties reported more deaths than births. That’s a new high and a continuation of a trend that started about a decade ago. In 2009, only a half-dozen South Georgia counties were suffering such a deficit. Given the devastation Covid-19 has already levied in Southwest Georgia, it seems inconceivable that this trend will reverse itself anytime soon.
Having babies, of course, isn’t the only way to increase population. The other way is to attract more people to move into an area, but South Georgia isn’t doing well on that front either. Thirty-six of the 56 counties had smaller populations in 2019 than five years earlier.
Twenty-six South Georgia counties lost population due to both out-migration and drops in the number of births. These included such important commercial and population centers as Colquitt County (Moultrie), Dougherty County (Albany), Thomas County (Thomasville) and Tift County (Tifton). Virtually alone among major South Georgia communities boasting even modest population increases (including a few more babies) were Lowndes County (Valdosta) and Bulloch County (Statesboro).
As hyperbolic and audacious as that might sound, it’s not totally crazy. It’s pretty much what South Georgia is up against. By any rational assessment, its current societal structures are broken. As I’ll detail in a follow-up piece, much of its economy is shrinking, it’s losing ground educationally, and its healthcare delivery system was fragile even before Covid-19 hit. As I was finishing up this post, the AJC reported that the only hospital in tiny Randolph County, which has the fourth-highest Covid-19 case rate in the state, would close in 90 days.
The question, of course, is what to do and how to go about it. As it happens, the Republican- and rural-dominated House Rural Development Council, casting about a couple of years ago for strategies to revitalize their communities, actually stumbled toward a quasi-socialistic, semi-European idea: they proposed granting a $6,000 tax credit to anybody who would move to rural Georgia. That idea went nowhere, however, after House Speaker David Ralston politely declared it DOA soon after it was floated.
Maybe they need to revive the idea but go bigger, and with a different twist: offer cash payments and/or tax credits not just to anybody, but to young people who a.) have certain educational credentials and/or needed skill sets and b.) are willing to move and start families in select rural Georgia communities that still have a pulse. In other words, strategically recolonize dying parts of the state that still have a chance at revival and rejuvenation and focus on them (and not all, in my estimation, do have such a chance).
If an idea like that still can’t get traction, they can always think about plagiarizing that Danish travel agency.
Having laid waste to southwest Georgia, the Covid-19 virus now appears to be making its way east across a swath of rural counties that largely escaped the virus for the first few months of the pandemic.
Like the Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, the Covid-19 forces are marching to the sea.
The bug long ago breached I-75 and began blazing a trail across a cluster of roughly 40 largely rural counties in southeast and east-central Georgia on its way to the coast.
It has, in fact, already reached Brunswick and Glynn County, where the infection rate is up more than 1,300 percent since Memorial Day, according to the latest data from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH). On Memorial Day – May 25th – Glynn County reported 87 confirmed cases of Covid-19; on Tuesday, July 7th, that number was up to 1,231.
As usual, with this kind of data, it’s helpful to map it. For the purposes of this map, I’ve excluded all counties that didn’t have an infection growth rate of at least 100 percent during the May 25-July 7 period.
Hence the blank area over virtually all of southwest Georgia on this map. (The shading on this map is intended to illustrate the extent of the increase in a county’s Covid-19 infections; the darker the shade, the bigger the increase from May 25th to July 7th.)
All the missing counties had May 25-July 7 growth rates of less than 100 percent, most of them dramatically under that level. While those counties – once arguably the worst Covid-19 hotspot in the world – are still adding cases, the pace of that growth has slowed dramatically.
As one example, Albany and Dougherty County, ground zero for the Southwest Georgia outbreak, reported a total of 1,727 confirmed cases on Memorial Day; since then, it’s added 303 new cases, an increase of 17.5 percent that pushed its total to 2,030.
An hour or so to the southeast, Lowndes County reported 249 confirmed cases on Memorial Day; as of Tuesday, it had added 1,410 new cases, for a total of 1,659 and a growth rate for the May 25-July 7 period of 566.3 percent. Lowndes County may not depose Dougherty as the Covid-19 king of South Georgia, but it has a fair chance of catching it if the current trends continue.
While the 40 or so east-central and southeast Georgia counties highlighted in the map constitute the biggest area of Covid-19 growth, other important sub-regions are being hit as well. A number border counties showed significant growth during the May 25-July 7 period, including a cluster of counties anchored by Muscogee County on the Alabama line and another group in Georgia’s northwest corner. Whitfield County, center of the state’s vital carpet industry, posted a 417 percent increase during the six-week period, and four mountain counties that border North Carolina — Fannin, Towns, Union and Rabun — are reporting significant increases.
On Monday, The New York Times published a report that took the first big look (at least that I’ve seen) at whether the ugly little virus was wreaking more havoc on Democrats or Republicans. Under the headline “The Coronavirus is Deadliest Where Democrats Live,” the Times reported:
“Democrats are far more likely to live in counties where the virus has ravaged the community, while Republicans are more likely to live in counties that have been relatively unscathed by the illness, though they are paying an economic price. Counties won by President Trump in 2016 have reported just 27 percent of the virus infections and 21 percent of the deaths — even though 45 percent of Americans live in these communities, a New York Times analysis has found.”
I’d been thinking about doing the same sort of piece about Georgia, but was concerned that any such analysis would be flawed by a variety of factors, including limited data and questions about the extent of testing in certain parts of the state, especially rural areas. I still have those concerns, but if the great gray lady can hold forth on this topic, so can Trouble in God’s Country.
The Times sorted national Covid-19 data by counties that voted for Trump in 2016 versus those that went for Democrat Hillary Clinton. I used county-level data from Georgia’s 2018 governor’s race and mashed it up with Covid-19 cases and deaths reported by the Georgia Department of Public Health as of early Tuesday morning, May 26.
Georgia’s Democratic counties — the 29 that voted for Stacey Abrams in 2018 — have so far borne the brunt of the virus’s attack, but the picture here isn’t as lopsided as the national breakdown reported by the Times.
The Abrams/Democratic counties are home to 53.2 percent of the state’s population and have so far suffered 55.8 percent of the infections and 57.4 percent of the Covid-19 deaths. The Abrams counties were for the most part heavily and densely populated urban counties, including the largest counties in Metro Atlanta, along with major out-state counties and a handful of smaller rural counties.
The 129 counties carried by the ultimate winner in that 2018 race, Republican Brian Kemp, claim 46.8 percent of the state’s population and so far have posted 44.2 percent of the Covid-19 cases and 42.6 percent of the deaths. Governor Kemp’s counties were largely rural counties (as the map here shows).
The Times also reports that: “In the country as a whole, outbreaks in conservative rural counties are rising, but not on a scale that would close the gap in the virus’s impact on red and blue counties.”
I’m skeptical that holds here in Georgia. While Abrams’s Democratic counties have logged more cases and deaths than Kemp’s Republican counties, their overall case rates and Covid-19 death rates aren’t that different. In Abrams’s counties, 387.8 people per 100,000 have contracted the virus and 18.3 per 100,000 have died; in Kemp’s counties, 346.3 people per 100,000 have tested positive while 15.5 per 100,000 have died.
In addition to having relatively comparable case and death rates, my analysis of an admittedly limited body of DPH data suggests that case rates in rural Georgia are ticking up at least a little faster than in urban areas. From May 16 through May 26, case rates in the Kemp counties rose 17.6 percent versus 14.5 percent in the Abrams counties.
Two other factors contribute to my suspicion that the gap between the Kemp and Abrams counties might continue to close. One is that it’s still not clear that sufficient testing is being done in rural counties. The other is that there’s a growing body of polling and other data to suggest that Republicans, perhaps especially those in rural areas, are taking the virus less seriously than their Democratic counterparts and not doing as good a job of following masking and social-distancing recommendations (here’s one good story on this phenomenon).
Bottom line, while more densely-populated Democratic counties may have represented low-hanging fruit for Covid-19, it’s far from clear that it hasn’t been able to find its way to Georgia’s sparsely-populated rural counties. If testing becomes more pervasive in rural Georgia and its residents are indeed taking a casual attitude toward the virus, the gap between the Democratic and Republican counties will almost certainly close up.
My hunch is that we’ll eventually realize that the virus itself is the only truly nonpartisan actor in this ongoing tragedy.
Following are lists of the counties carried by Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams in the 2018 Georgia governor’s race, along with data on the number of positive Covid-19 cases and deaths as of the morning of May 26, 2020. To conduct this analysis and show the totals and case rates by the two groups of counties, I had to recalculate the county-specific case rates and then calculate the totals and rates for each group. For some reason, the case rate results I got were a little different from those published by DPH. As the denominator, I used the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 population estimates. The equation for calculating the case rates is straightforward: (Positive Cases/2019 Population Estimates) X 100,000. In the interest of transparency, I’m showing both the DPH Case Rates (as published on its website) and the TIGC Case Rate Calculation.
There’s a persistent pattern I’ve noticed in various buckets of economic, population, and education data, but I’ve never fully connected the dots or taken a stab at suggesting what it all might mean. Now seems like a good time to do that.
Rural Georgia — and especially Middle and South Georgia — got the crap kicked out of it by the Great Recession and never has recovered. Maybe that’s been obvious to everybody else, but it might be useful to look at several data points to get a sense of just how bad the damage has been — especially now that COVID-19 has rolled in and begun raining its own special brand of hell down on the state, and especially southwest Georgia.
I think the first part of the Great Recession picture I noticed was the result of an almost whimsical notion on my part. I’d made numerous references to “the death of rural Georgia,” but I was thinking metaphorically about local economies and the collapse of various critical parts of community infrastructures, like school systems and hospitals.
Then one day I wondered if some of them might really be, literally, dying.
Turns out that’s an easy enough thing to check. Thanks to the Georgia Department of Public Health’s excellent, publicly-accessible OASIS database, you can easily download county-level birth and death data for the past 24 years (since 1994) and use it to easily see whether many counties were reporting more deaths than births.
For about the first dozen or so years — from 1994 until 2009 — there wasn’t much news in those numbers. The number of counties reporting more deaths than births floated up and down between a high of 19 (2002) and a low of eight (2006).
But then, coinciding with the onset of Great Recession, that number began a steady climb. The year 2007 saw 13 counties report more deaths than births, an average year; in 2008, the number rose to 18, a significant jump but still within the range seen up until that point. In 2010, the number of counties reporting more deaths than births ticked up to 20 — not much of an increase, but a new high. Since then, as this graph shows, the number has climbed steadily and dramatically.
As of 2018, 79 of Georgia’s 159 counties reported more deaths than births. Of those, 78 are outside Metro Atlanta and the vast majority are small rural counties, as the map to the right illustrates.
The only Metro Atlanta county to make this group was Fayette County, long recognized as a redoubt for retirees well beyond child-bearing age.
Of course, suffering more deaths than births is not the only way to lose population, but it can hardly be regarded as a positive trend. More than 60 counties lost population in the 10-year period from 2009 through 2018.
The second data point I noticed had to do with education — specifically, the number of high school graduates each county was sending to a University System of Georgia (USG) college or university. I’ve written about this before, but I’ve never really spotlighted how the pattern changed with the onset of the Great Recession.
Up until 2011, the 147 counties outside Metro Atlanta sent more freshmen to University System of Georgia institutions than the 12 Metro Atlanta counties, which is probably what you’d expect. But (as this graph shows) the number of freshmen being sent from those counties to USG institutions started to flatten out and decline in 2008 and ’09, and then basically fell off a cliff for the next several years before beginning what looks like a relatively weak recovery.
Metro Atlanta enrollment also took a significant hit, but it recovered faster and finally got back to its high-water mark in 2017 and ’18. The other 147 counties saw their combined numbers drop through 2014 before showing any improvement, and they are still well below the numbers they posted prior to the Great Recession.
Finally, economics. Based on various pots of Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) data, I’ve reported that Metro Atlanta suffered a bigger initial economic hit but recovered faster and has since widened the gap between itself and the rest of the state. But perhaps the clearest picture emerged late last year when the BEA, a unit of the Commerce Department, published county-level Gross Domestic Product (GDP) data for the first 18 years of this century.
The pattern is the same, as this graph illustrates.
The 12 Metro Atlanta counties suffered significant drops in GDP in 2008 and ’09, and it took the region until 2013 to get back to pre-Great Recession levels. The rest of the state took a softer hit but needed an extra year — until 2014 — to get back to pre-recession highs, and the growth since then has been fairly tepid.
This table shows GDP by region for each of the Trouble in God’s Country regions for selected years ($s in 000s). The key takeaways from this are that — since the state began emerging from the recession in about 2013 — my TIGC Middle Georgia and South Georgia regions have lagged badly behind the rest of the state (and Metro Atlanta in particular), struggling to average a growth rate of one percent a year.
I can probably get an argument from actual economists or statisticians about cause-and-effect, but I’ll go out on a limb here and conjecture that the Great Recession set in motion forces that have contributed dramatically to the continued decimation of Georgia’s (and no doubt America’s) rural regions.
Significant areas of rural Georgia were suffering population loss and economic contraction even before COVID-19 hit (and now they’re sending fewer young people to college, let alone getting them back home if and when they graduate).
As perhaps the most dramatic example, Dougherty County lost more than three percent of its population and five percent of its GDP between 2009 and 2018 — and that, obviously, was before the novel coronavirus turned it into the public health equivalent of Chernobyl.
The same, indeed, is true for the entire southwest Georgia region. Nearly every county in the Albany region has suffered both population losses and GDP contractions in the past decade, and now they have among the worst COVID-19 case rates in the nation and probably on the planet.
That, I think, is the new definition of trouble in God’s country, and it’s difficult to even envision what a recovery strategy and process might look like. Whatever that strategy and process turns out to be, it will probably take generations to accomplish.
A quick update on the analysis I posted last Saturday comparing the COVID-19 performance of six Republican-led Old South states with the three West Coast states led by Democratic governors:
A week ago, the regional comparison looked like this:
Today, based on the latest data available from all nine states’ public health websites, the regional comparison looks like this:
A week ago, the Old South states already had nearly 6,000 more confirmed cases than the West Coast, but still had fewer deaths. In the six days since I pulled that first batch of data, the numbers of confirmed cases and deaths have increased at a much more rapid pace in the Old South than on the West Coast, which bore the initial brunt of the COVID-19 onslaught.
Confirmed cases are up 74.4 percent across the Old South states versus 54.4 percent on the West Coast. But the change in the death counts is even more dramatic. A week ago, the Old South still trailed the West Coast in that category, but since then COVID-19 deaths across the south have shot up by 121.4 percent versus 80.8 percent in the west; as a result, the Old South now has significantly more deaths than the West Coast.
As I acknowledged in last week’s report, there are several obvious differences between the two regions and their various states. The Old South is both less healthy and more religious than the West Coast; it is plagued by comorbidities that constitute the kind of underlying medical conditions that make people more vulnerable to the virus, and its residents have been slower to give up the kind of large religious gatherings that are now recognized as breeding grounds for COVID-19.
Another obvious difference, though, has been in the public policy approach to tackling the virus. The Democratic governors on the West Coast acted earlier and more decisively than their Republican Old South counterparts to shut down their states, as I detailed in last week’s post.
The current state-by-state results look like this:
Georgia now has the highest COVID-19 infection and mortality rate of any of the Old South states, and is second only to Washington, whose Seattle outbreak was one of the nation’s first epicenters, among the nine states. Georgia’s poor numbers are driven in significant measure by the degree to which the virus has ravaged nearly a dozen counties in deep southwest Georgia.
I hope to flesh out the Georgia situation in another post over the weekend.
It’s probably a little early for this kind of analysis, but our nation’s every-state-for-itself approach to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic is already generating some interesting contrasts between different states and even regions of the country.
I’ve been following the differences between Georgia and North Carolina, neighboring southeastern states with nearly identical populations but very different COVID-19 results. North Carolina continues to have substantially fewer confirmed cases, hospitalizations and deaths — despite performing a great many more tests than Georgia. The principal difference between the two states appears to be political: North Carolina’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, acted earlier and more decisively to begin closing down his state than his Republican counterpart, Brian Kemp, here in Georgia.
Today I decided to expand that analysis and look at two regions of the country: the West Coast (made up of California, Oregon and Washington) and the Old South (comprised in this analysis of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee). As it happens, these two regions also have very comparable populations: 52.0 million in the Old South versus 51.4 million on the West Coast.
This comparison also gives us the same political split. The West Coast is famously deep blue; all three states have liberal Democratic governors. The Old South is bright red and governed by proudly right-wing politicians.
So how are they doing? Let’s look first at the regional numbers.
The state-by-state numbers look like this:
The West Coast, which suffered the country’s first COVID-19 blows as the virus moved in from China, has actually (as of the numbers available this morning on state websites today) recorded 43 more deaths than the Old South — but significantly fewer confirmed cases. The Old South may have recorded 8.6 percent fewer deaths than the West Coast, but it’s posted 22.6 percent more infections.
Perhaps more telling are the COVID-19 infection and mortality rates, which I’ve calculated using a standard formula: [(Confirmed Cases or Deaths/Population)*100,000].
This is, of course, a complex situation, with a great many variables at work. The Old South starts at a disadvantage to its West Coast counterparts because it is both less healthy and more religious. The higher percentages of comorbidities such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease constitute the kinds of “underlying medical conditions” that make people more vulnerable to COVID-19, and places of worship are among the mass gatherings that are now recognized as natural breeding grounds for the bug. (I’ll try to flesh out these points in a later post, but you can find good rankings on health and religiosity here and here.)
That said, it seems increasingly difficult to argue that politics and public policy choices aren’t playing a significant role in how different parts of the country fare in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The West Coast governors acted well ahead of their Old South counterparts to begin shutting down their states. Indeed, probably the first major American politician to take such action was San Francisco Mayor London Breed; she imposed a shelter-in-place order on March 13 and was joined by other Northern California officials three days later. California Governor Gavin Newsom followed suit on March 19. Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who was confronted with the nation’s first major outbreak in Seattle, banned major gatherings in heavily-populated counties on March 11, and then imposed a full shelter-in-place order on March 23. Governor Kate Brown of Oregon came on board the next day.
Meanwhile, the Old South governors lagged well behind their West Coast counterparts and to a great extent deferred to local officials (only, once they did act, to upend many of the local actions). Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves initially said he had no plans to issue a statewide order but did take to Facebook Live to conduct a prayer session on March 22. Today, his state has among the nation’s highest COVID-19 infection, hospitalization and mortality rates.
Ditto Alabama. There, as the West Coast governors were shutting down their states, Governor Kaye Ivey announced on March 24 she had no plans to issue a statewide order. “We’re not California, we’re not New York, we aren’t even Louisiana,” she said.
Today, her state’s COVID-19 infection and mortality rates are worse than California’s. Both she and Reeves threw in the towel late last week and issued statewide shelter-in-place orders. As did the governors of Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. At this point, South Carolina is the only Old South hold-out.
Notably, the reluctant and belated actions by the southern governors have sowed widespread confusion. Here in Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp justified his turnaround decision to issue a shelter-in-place order with the dubious claim that he had only learned the day before that asymptomatic COVID-19 victims could spread the virus — even though public health officials had been saying as much since February.
That explanation earned him national media scorn (“Georgia Gov. Shows Just How Far Behind The World He Is On Coronavirus,” blared a HuffPost headline), but his shelter-in-place order may have done him at least as much local political damage. One presumably unintended consequence of his order was that — by superseding local ordinances — it reopened Georgia’s Atlantic beaches, including Tybee Island, Jekyll Island and St. Simons.
According to a story in today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a Republican member of the Glynn County Commission, Peter Murphy, reacted thusly: “We had carefully considered ways to keep people safe here and the governor’s order has undermined everything we were doing.” Murphy, a retired physician, had led the push to close down the local beaches.
Up the road at Tybee Island, an obviously peeved Mayor Shirley Sessions issued a statement that opened on a decidedly undiplomatic note: “As the Pentagon ordered 100,000 body bags to store the corpses of Americans killed by the Coronavirus, Governor Brian Kemp dictated that Georgia beaches must reopen, and declared any decision-makers who refused to follow these orders would face prison and/or fines.”
Mayor Sessions went on to say bluntly that she and the Tybee Island City Council “do not support” Kemp’s decision and to make clear that — while the beaches themselves might be open — the town-controlled access points and parking lots would remain closed. “At no time,” she said, “has the state designated a single point of contact to orchestrate the implementation of the Governor’s plan.”
In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis fared little better when he finally issued a stay-at-home order on Wednesday. Hours after signing that first order, The Tampa Bay Times reported that he “quietly signed another one that appeared to override restrictions put in place by local governments to halt the spread of coronavirus. However, DeSantis on Thursday said the amendment he signed does the reverse, instigating another round of confusion over the intent of his directives.”
Is all this definitive? Probably not. Again, it’s arguably a little early for this kind of analysis. But the data that’s already in is a little hard to ignore.