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Posts tagged ‘Distressed Communities Index’

Albany and Macon make Business Insider list of America’s 50 most miserable cities

Business Insider went up yesterday with a story about the 50 most miserable cities in America, a list that included Albany at 18th and Macon at 47th.  The wonder is that there weren’t more, and I’d wager that Augusta and Columbus, perhaps among others, didn’t miss the list by much.

Business Insider built its list using Census data that “(took) into consideration population change (because if people are leaving it’s usually for a good reason), the percentage of people working, median household incomes, the percentage of people without healthcare, median commute times, and the number of people living in poverty.”

To a significant degree, the Business Insider list echoes findings by the Economic Innovation Group (EIG), which for the past two years has used its Distressed Communities Index (DCI) to rank all U.S. counties as well as all cities with populations of at least 50,000.  EIG’s DCI includes several of the same metrics as Business Insider’s misery index, but one significant difference is that Business Insider looks at population trends.

I think that’s an important metric and one that’s largely overlooked in evaluating the health of Georgia’s cities and counties.  By my count, 68 of Georgia’s 159 counties have (according to Census Bureau estimates) lost population over the past five years.  The vast majority of those are rural Middle and South Georgia counties.  (I’ve long thought the Georgia Department of Community Affairs needs to retool its Job Tax Credit rankings to reflect population trends, but that’s a subject for another post.)

Another interesting aspect of the Business Insider list has to do with what’s missing.  While Florida had a half-dozen entrants on BI’s bottom 50, Georgia’s other contiguous Old South neighbors managed to stay off the list entirely: Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina didn’t have a single bottom 50 city amongst them.  Even Mississippi and Louisiana had only one bottom 50 city apiece — Jackson at 32nd and Shreveport at 45th.  How so?  Is there anything to be learned by comparing Georgia’s cities to those in our neighboring states?

Finally, the BI list reinforces (at least in my mind) the notion that any serious rural revitalization effort has to include — and probably start with — the regional hub cities.  As I’ve written before, many of Georgia’s major regional cities are suffering their own types of problems, and if they’re allowed to slide past some hard-to-discern tipping point, it would probably doom the rural counties around them for decades to come.

Couple of reference notes:

  • I’ve written about the Economic Innovation Group’s Distressed Community Index a couple of times, here and here.
  • You can find the details of EIG’s Distressed Communities Index on page 3 of this report.
  • And finally, a tip of the hat to Doug Hall, TIGC’s man in Mexico, for flagging the Business Insider list on Facebook.  I probably would have missed it otherwise.

Putting the divide between Georgia’s rural and urban counties into perspective

One of the hard things about telling the “Trouble in God’s Country” story is figuring out how to explain the magnitude of Georgia’s urban-rural divide in ways that are actually useful – to the general public as well as policy makers.    It’s not exactly news that Metro Atlantans are more prosperous economically, better educated and healthier than their country cousins.

And, we’ve long had various types of county rankings, and one county is always No. 1 and another is No. 159.  (Right now, Forsyth County ranks first in most categories you can come up with, and we have something of a barroom brawl amongst a fair-sized group counties to see which is at the bottom of the heap in Georgia.  More later on this.)

But rankings don’t give you a real sense of the gap between Georgia’s best and worst, or whether that gap is getting bigger or smaller.  Lately I’ve been wallowing around in various piles of national and 50-state data to see if I could find anything that might be helpful.  I’ve still got more work to do, but herewith a few nuggets from my wallowing to date:

  • The gap between Georgia’s best-off and worst-off counties is probably bigger than in just about any other state. I’ve got a couple of sources on this.  One is from a Washington think tank called the Economic Innovation Group (EIG).  EIG has pulled together several tons of economic, educational, poverty and housing data on all 3,000-plus counties in the country and generated what it calls a “Distressed Communities Index,” or DCI, for each county.  Then it used those index scores to create national rankings.  The best possible DCI is 1 and the worst is 100.  For 2017, the top Georgia county in EIG’s rankings was Oconee County, with a DCI of 1.1 (Forsyth County came in second with a DCI of 1.6).  Oconee ranked 34th nationally; Forsyth, 49th.  At the very bottom of the EIG rankings, in 3,124th place, was Stewart County, with a DCI score of 99.9.  That’s about as big a divide as you can find.  Also worth mentioning: Stewart County had some real competition for that last-place finish.  Five other Georgia counties were nipping at its heels in a race to the bottom: Macon, Hancock, Calhoun, Wheeler and Taliaferro counties all had Distressed Community Indexes of more than 99.
  • My second pot of data on this comes from the folks at County Health Rankings & Roadmaps. Because their data is presented on a state-by-state basis, it takes a little work to build a national picture.  Their report includes premature death rates for 2,900 counties (a couple of hundred had such small populations that they couldn’t generate reliable rates).  Premature death rates – known formally as Years of Potential Life Lost before Age 75, or YPLL 75 – are sort of the Dow Jones Industrial Average of population health.  It’s the best single number to watch to get a feel for the general health of a community.  (EIG, by the way, doesn’t include any health data in its DCI calculations, so this is a useful complement to its work.)  In these rankings, Forsyth is the top-ranked Georgia county and Oconee came in 2nd; their national ranks were 55th and 185th, respectively, and their respective YPLL 75 rates were 4265 and 5283 (with YPLL 75 rates, the lower the number, the better).  At the bottom of this list of 2,900 counties, we find a somewhat different list of Georgia counties.  Miller County came in 2,866th with a YPLL 75 rate of 15646; Warren County did a little better, finishing 2,862nd with a rate of 15422.  Twiggs County came in 2,850th with a score of 15001 and Quitman County finished at 2,841st with a rate of 14,797.  These are truly third-world numbers and obviously among the worst in the nation.
  • One of the things that becomes clear from studying the EIG and County Health Rankings data is that it’s not just rural areas that are in trouble. Just about every major population center outside Metro Atlanta ranks poorly nationally on just about every metric available.  Worst-off is Albany, which posted a 2017 EIG Distress Score of 99.1 and finished 8th on EIG’s list of America’s most-distressed small cities – just barely ahead of Flint, Michigan.  But most of Georgia’s other regional cities didn’t fare a lot better.  On EIG’s list of cities with populations of more than 50,000, Athens-Clarke County, Augusta-Richmond County, Columbus and Valdosta all finished in the bottom quintile nationally, and Savannah just barely avoided falling into the lowest grouping.  (For some reason, EIG didn’t include Macon on its list of Georgia cities, but Bibb County was the second-worst major Georgia county on EIG’s county list, not far ahead of Albany’s Dougherty County.)  The City of Atlanta was in the middle of the pack nationally, with a DCI score of 59.6.  At the top of the Georgia pile was the City of Alpharetta, which ranked 21st nationally with a Distress Score of 2.6 (again, contrast that with Albany’s 99.1 and you find about as big a divide as possible between otherwise comparable Georgia cities).  I won’t go into detail here, but the same is generally true with the County Health Rankings data; Muscogee, Bibb, Richmond and Dougherty all finish in the bottom 500 of the 2,900 counties it ranked nationally.

I think this is important because I’ve long believed that any effort to improve Georgia’s rural areas has to include – and probably start with – the regional hub communities.  Whether they like to admit it or not, rural areas depend on those major populations centers for a wide range of support systems, including employment, healthcare, education and shopping.  If the Macons and Augustas are allowed to slip past some hard-to-discern tipping point, it may well doom dependent rural areas for multiple generations.  As a practical matter, it may already be too late for Albany and much of Southwest Georgia, where the population that isn’t already packing up and leaving is among the least-educated and least-healthy in the nation (if not the world).

——————–

Following are four tables showing the top and bottom 10 Georgia counties in the Economic Innovation Group’s 2017 Distressed Communities Index scores and rankings, and premature death rates as published by County Health Rankings & Roadmaps.  The national rankings shown with the premature death data were developed by the writer by assembling a spreadsheet combining County Health Rankings & Roadmap’s from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

EIG Top 10 Georgia Counties – 2017
County Region EIG Distress Score EIG National Rank
Oconee North Georgia 1.1 34
Forsyth Metro Atlanta 1.6 49
Cherokee Metro Atlanta 2.9 92
Fayette Metro Atlanta 4.9 152
Paulding Metro Atlanta 5.2 163
Coweta Middle Georgia 5.6 174
Cobb Metro Atlanta 6.1 191
Harris Middle Georgia 8.3 261
Henry Metro Atlanta 11.6 362
Gwinnett Metro Atlanta 12.0 375

 

EIG Bottom 10 Georgia Counties – 2017
County Region EIG Distress Score EIG National Rank
Jefferson Middle Georgia 97.8 3,057
Sumter South Georgia 98.1 3,065
Lanier South Georgia 98.4 3,075
Telfair South Georgia 98.9 3,093
Macon Middle Georgia 99.1 3,099
Hancock Middle Georgia 99.5 3,110
Calhoun South Georgia 99.7 3,117
Wheeler South Georgia 99.8 3,119
Taliaferro North Georgia 99.8 3,120
Stewart South Georgia 99.9 3,124

 

County Health Rankings & Roadmaps

Top 10 Georgia Counties for Premature Death (2015-2017)

County Region Premature Death Rate National Rank
Forsyth Metro Atlanta 4265 55
Oconee North Georgia 5131 185
Gwinnett Metro Atlanta 5283 223
Fayette Metro Atlanta 5521 278
Cobb Metro Atlanta 5605 299
Cherokee Metro Atlanta 5654 315
Columbia North Georgia 6084 466
Harris Middle Georgia 6104 476
Wheeler South Georgia 6384 581
Echols South Georgia 6476 633

 

County Health Rankings & Roadmaps

Bottom 10 Georgia Counties for Premature Death (2015-2017)

County Region Premature Death Rate National Rank
Crisp South Georgia 11837 2,639
Emanuel Middle Georgia 11862 2,645
Clinch South Georgia 12262 2,694
Clay South Georgia 12341 2,706
Jeff Davis South Georgia 12805 2,742
Candler South Georgia 13551 2,792
Quitman South Georgia 14797 2,841
Twiggs Middle Georgia 15001 2,850
Warren Middle Georgia 15422 2,862
Miller South Georgia 15646 2,866

 

© Trouble in God’s Country 2019

The real problem with HB 887: it starts in the wrong place

Yesterday I posted an initial piece dissecting some of the mechanics of House Bill 887, the Georgia Communications Services Tax Act, and said I’d loop back for a second swing at “the real problem” with the bill.  Here goes.

The real problem is that it proposes to serve the wrong areas – or at least the wrong areas first.  Specifically, it says that the first three rounds of state grants to be made under the proposed “Georgia Reverse Auction Broadband Deployment Program” should go to “unserved” areas.

That sounds natural enough until you actually think about it.  There’s a reason those areas are unserved.  There’s hardly anybody there.  If there were, AT&T, Comcast and other telecom and cable providers would already be investing their own capital in sparsely populated rural counties.  At this point, no amount of publicly-funded broadband (which, by the way, would be paid for primarily Metro Atlanta taxpayers under the current bill) would do much to address the basic problems faced by Georgia’s poorest, least-educated and sickest communities.

In most of my Trouble in God’s Country research and writing, I’ve tried to stick to data analysis and avoid editorial commentary.  In various presentations, though, I’ve ventured an unpopular opinion that I’ll repeat here: we’re already into a triage situation in much of rural Georgia, especially from the gnat line south.  With some communities, it’s time to give them a toe tag and stop throwing good money after bad.

Which is not to say our state government should abandon these areas altogether.  One of my reasons for pursuing my Trouble in God’s Country research is that I believe the continued decline and deterioration of rural Georgia will simply become an ever-larger albatross around the neck of the state and, inevitably, Metro Atlanta.  Better to address the problems now rather than let them fester.

So I applauded the creation of the House Rural Development Council and their efforts over the past nine months.  I just think they got to the wrong conclusion, at least on rural broadband, and that by trying to tackle the “unserved” areas first, they’re starting at the wrong end of the problem chain.

The better starting point, in my view, would be the state’s regional cities – Macon, Rome, Augusta, Savannah, and Columbus, et al.  With just a few exceptions these communities are relatively stagnant or in various states of decline and deterioration.  Albany, once a very vibrant South Georgia city, now ranks as one of the 10 most “distressed” small-to-mid-sized cities in America – right behind Flint, Mich., in the 2017 Distressed Communities Index published by the Economic Innovation Group.  If these trends are allowed to continue – if these regional cities are essentially allowed to fail – then the collapse of the rural areas surrounding them will only accelerate.

My own politics on this kind of thing are pretty liberal.  I don’t have a philosophical problem with spending public money on big problems like this.  I don’t even object to Metro Atlanta tax dollars being diverted to address out-state problems.  I think it’s in Metro Atlanta’s interest to invest in other areas of the state and, in particular, to help revitalize and reinvigorate the regional cities.  I don’t know exactly how to do that, but if the decay continues, sooner or later – and probably sooner – Macon’s problems will begin to wash up on Metro Atlanta’s doorstep.

Further, economic development doesn’t have to be a zero sum game.  As I told the AJC’s Bill Torpy last week, Metro Atlanta has morphed into something like an intergalactic black hole that is pulling in the vast majority of the state’s economic prowess and educational muscle.  As the region continues to expand, it seems to me it ought to be possible to develop what amount to colonization strategies aimed at purposefully deploying more of that economic and educational strength to satellite cities that are increasingly being pulled into Atlanta’s orbit: Macon, Columbus, Carrollton, Rome, Gainesville, Athens, etc.  Working with those cities to help beef up their industrial and technological infrastructures – and their human capital – should be a win for them as well as Metro Atlanta.

One of the ideas that came out of the House Rural Development Council was to give tax credits to affluent Georgians to move to rural Georgia – in other words, to literally use tax dollars to pay people to move to those areas.  That proposal was apparently strangled in its legislative crib, and appropriately so.

But finding ways to create targeted incentives for people – and businesses – to move to the regional cities might actually make sense.  To that point, so might an effort to modernize the state’s job tax credit program.  For years now, Georgia (like many other states) has maintained a job tax credit program aimed primarily at providing incentives for businesses to create jobs in the state’s poorest counties.  The Georgia Department of Community Affairs, which administers the program, puts 71 counties in that poorest group of counties; go into, say, Mitchell County and create just two jobs and the state will give you $8,000 in tax credits for up to four years against your Georgia corporate income tax.  At the other end of the spectrum, to get a job tax credit in Forsyth or Gwinnett counties, you’d have to create at least 25 jobs, and the tax credit per job would only be $1,250.  (And, yes, that means folks in Forsyth and Gwinnett counties are helping subsidize job creation in Mitchell County.)

Frankly, I’m not sure two new jobs in Mitchell County is worth $36,000 in state tax breaks.  But the establishment of a new software engineering company and the creation of a couple of dozen or so high-skilled jobs in Rome or Macon or Gainesville might be worth a good bit more than that – especially if the local governments put some skin in the game and, as part of the effort, make meaningful commitments to supporting the rural communities surrounding them.

As I’ve said before, these are tough nuts to crack and I don’t have all the answers.  But I’m pretty sure that plowing millions of dollars into rural broadband – at least right now – isn’t one of them.