New “Distressed Community” ratings reinforce view that Georgia’s haves and have-nots split along the gnat line
A couple of years ago I stumbled across a Washington, D.C., think tank that calls itself the Economic Innovation Group. EIG’s stated mission is “to advance solutions that empower entrepreneurs and investors to forge a more dynamic economy throughout America,” and the smart folks who work there do an awful lot of terrific research that has helped bring much of Trouble in God’s Country’s work into sharper relief.
One of its most impressive products is what it calls the Distressed Communities Index, or DCI. The DCI is the product of a calculation cooked up by EIG that blends together seven economic data points mined from U.S. Census Bureau data: 1.) the percent of the adult population without a high school diploma; 2.) the housing vacancy rate; 3.) the percentage of prime-age adults not currently in work; 4.) the percentage of the population living below the poverty line; 5,) median household income as a percentage of the state’s median household income; 6.) percent change in the number of local jobs, and 7.) percent change in the number of business establishments.
EIG produces its DCIs at county and zip code levels, and it measures distress on a scale that it describes as from “approaching zero” to 100.0. “Approaching zero” is good; 100.0 is bad. I got my first look at EIG’s 2018 DCI report and did a couple of posts about it (including here and here). Now they’re back with a 2020 edition based on Census Bureau data from the period 2014 through 2018, and I’ve spent the past several days rolling around in the numbers.
I’m not sure there are any huge headlines, but there are more than a few middle-sized and small ones.
Probably the first one to mention is that Oconee County — as it did in the 2018 report — still has the best Distressed Community Index in Georgia. This won’t be a surprise to anybody who follows this sort of thing. Oconee County, located next door to Athens-Clarke County and about an hour from Metro Atlanta, has for several years now been ranked by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) as having the strongest economy in the state.
The more interesting Oconee County factoid is that its DCI improved significantly between 2018 to 2020 — from .5 to .2 — and that improvement appears to have moved it into the top 10 in the national rankings. While EIG doesn’t include national rankings in its dataset, it is possible to sort all 3,133 U.S. counties by their DCI score and then assign rankings based on that sort. That exercise pushes Oconee County into a tie for fifth place with Douglas County, Colorado, and Sarpy County, Nebraska.
(For those of you who are wondering, the top four counties in EIG’s list are Lincoln County, S.D.; Broomfield County, Colo.; Loudon County, Va.; and Hamilton County, Ind.)
The second medium-sized headline out of the EIG data is that it demonstrates once again the expanse of the gap between Georgia’s geographic haves and have-nots. At the bottom of EIG’s 2018 DCI pile is Wheeler County, which earned a Distressed Community Index of 99.9, and that put it pretty close to the bottom of the national pile as well. It tied with two South Texas counties for 3,129th place out of a total of 3,133 counties.
The only state to have a wider gap between its highest- and lowest-rated counties was Virginia. The aforementioned Loudon County, Va.,– part of the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Area — posted a DCI of 0.1 to tie for second place while, across the state, Buchanan County, Va., scored a perfect 100.0 and tied with its adjoining Appalachian neighbor, McDowell County, W.Va., for last place.
Here in Georgia, Oconee and Wheeler counties are about 150 miles and three hours apart, connected on a north-south line by U.S. 441. But that time and distance only begins to hint at the socioeconomic chasm between the two counties, as this table detailing the metrics that go into EIG’s DCI shows. Wheeler County’s problems are, across the board, obviously orders of magnitude worse than Oconee County’s.
While EIG does not include formal national rankings in its data, it does slice the 3,133 counties into national quintiles — and here, at least, there’s a little good news for Georgia. This time around, Georgia has significantly more counties in the top national quintile and fewer in the bottom quintile than it did in the 2018 report. Put another way, Georgia’s overall DCI profile has arguably improved, at least a little bit.
Predictably, though, the regional distribution of those counties is anything but even. Twenty-five Georgia counties made it into the top national quintile, and 17 of those are located north of the gnat line; three are on the coast, and four are in Middle Georgia. South Georgia’s only placement in the top quintile is Lee County, the affluent white flight county just north of Albany and Dougherty County, and its index score and ranking actually tumbled significantly between the 2018 and 2020 reports. In 2018, it had the ninth-best DCI in the state; in the most recent report, it had fallen to 23rd. Its TIGC-calculated national ranking fell from 180th in 2018 to 598th in 2020, near the bottom of the first quintile.
In contrast, the lowest-ranking county in TIGC’s Metro Atlanta region improved both its DCI and its ranking. Clayton County, the only Metro Atlanta county in the fourth quintile, improved its DCI from 74.3 to 68.6 and its statewide rank from 79th to 75th. Its national ranking, according to TIGC’s unofficial calculations, improved from 2,322nd in 2018 to 2,150th in the 2020 report.
Throughout my work on Trouble in God’s Country, I’ve waffled on the question of how best to characterize the divide between Georgia’s geographic haves and have-nots: Urban vs. Rural, Metro Atlanta vs. Everybody Else, North vs. South. In recent months, I’ve gravitated to the North vs. South view — with the understanding that North includes (and is driven by) Metro Atlanta and that South is everything from about the gnat line south.
The new EIG data, mapped below, reinforces that view. The key takeaway from this map isn’t that the best-scoring counties are concentrated in and around Metro Atlanta — that’s no surprise. It’s that the largest group of the middle-range counties — those shown in the lighter shades of blue — surround the Metro Atlanta region, reflecting region’s expanding economic influence.
The Georgia coast can claim a handful of counties with decent DCI ratings, and several others are scattered across rural Georgia. But with those few exceptions, the farther you get from Metro Atlanta, the darker the shades of blue — and the worse the DCI scores — become.
The EIG data and its DCI scores are in line with other assessments that make it clear that Georgia’s economic strength is concentrating more and more from roughly the gnat line north — as is its population growth and, therefore, its political power. This will ultimately — and sooner rather than later — undo a rough balance of political and economic power that has prevailed in the state for more than a century. It will also complicate the process of addressing the challenges in the state’s rural areas south of the gnat line.
Following is a complete list of Georgia counties with their EIG DCI ratings and ranks, and the national quintile they fall into.