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Posts tagged ‘Dougherty County’

Revisiting the Gwinnett County-South Georgia comparison (Part I)

I’ve made reference in at least one earlier post to my poor and often meandering research habits.  Well, I’ve done it again.  Recently I started thinking about updating a post I published in December 2016 comparing 56 South Georgia counties to Gwinnett County alone and somehow wound up researching global birth rates.

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 it happens, South Georgia (and no doubt much of rural America) is on the bleeding edge of this global challenge.  Demographers and public health authorities are fretting about “inverted age structures” and suggesting that, as Professor Christopher Murray of the University of Washington told futurism.com, “we’ll have to reorganize societies.”

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. 

“Do it for Dougherty” has a catchy ring to it.

Covid-19 making Sherman-like march to the sea

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.Ga Counties with 100% Increases

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.

 

 

Rural Georgia never recovered from the Great Recession. Now comes COVID-19

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.

More Deaths than Births Column Graph

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.2018 More Deaths Than Births

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.  GD{ Growth Metro Atlanta vs. 147 Counties

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).  Regional GDP ChartThe 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TIGC Covid-19 March 28 Round-Up

Random Questions and Observations on Covid-19:

  • Why are the results from Georgia and North Carolina so different?  The two states have nearly identical populations — 10.6 million for Georgia versus 10.5 million for North Carolina, according to 2019 Census Bureau estimates — but have very different Covid-19 results so far.  I’ve been watching this for a while, thinking the numbers might even out.  They haven’t.  As of today’s morning report from both states’ public health agencies, North Carolina has tested more than 50 percent more people than Georgia but found less than half as many “positives” as Georgia, and with only a fraction of the hospitalizations and deaths, as this table shows. Ga NC ComparisonThe question is why.  There are obviously a lot of variables at play, but the two states probably have a lot more in common than not.  Based on news reports I’ve read, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, seems to have acted earlier than his Georgia counterpart, Republican Brian Kemp — but not that much earlier.  We’re probably going to have to wait for the smoke to clear to develop a truly useful analysis of this, but these differences are worth keeping an eye on.  It’d be interesting to see the AJC and the Charlotte Observer collaborate on a tick-tock plotting state and maybe major local actions across a timeline.
  • Like Sherman, Covid-19 continues its march through Georgia.  As of today’s late-morning report from the Georgia Department of Public Health, Covid-19 has now been found in 108 of Georgia’s 159 counties.  March 28 Counties with Confirmed CasesAs this map shows, the areas that have so far avoided reporting positive tests are almost entirely rural, including a swath of sparsely populated counties through east-central and southeast Georgia and another group of counties in west Georgia that somehow haven’t yet been pulled into the orbit of the Albany hot spot.  While the bulk of the positive tests and deaths are in Metro Atlanta, the rate of infection and Covid-19 deaths is much higher in South Georgia, as the table below shows.  Indeed, if you focus on Dougherty County and its six contiguous counties, the Covid-19 infection rate and death rate are, respectively, 6.7 times and 20 times that of TIGC’s Metro Atlanta region.MARCH 28 Regional Summary
  • Using smartphones to gauge mobility in the face of Covid-19.  One of the more interesting chunks of data to surface in the Covid-19 pandemic has come from a company called Unacast.  Unacast uses location tracking data from smartphones to track how far users travel each day and aggregates that data to see what that can tell us about whether people are following the guidance of their state and local leaders and limiting their local travel.  The data seems to lag by a few days and it’s still early, but it’s still interesting.  As of today’s report, four of the five best-behaving counties in Georgia are in Metro Atlanta — Forsyth, Dawson, Cherokee and Fulton counties.  The other top-five county was Clay County, which ranked second and had slashed its “average distance traveled” by 39 percent.  Clay County sits hard on the Alabama line in southwest Georgia, on the edge of the Albany blast zone, but has yet to report a single positive Covid-19 test.  You have to wonder if everybody in that county hasn’t gone inside and shut all their doors and windows.  You can find the Unacast data here.  Scroll down until you find the U.S. map, then click on Georgia and, when that map comes up, click on your county and wait for the data to come up.  It’s a little slow and clunky, but still useful.
  • Covid-19’s economic toll may be tougher on rural Georgia than Metro Atlanta.  The great recession hit Metro Atlantans harder than their rural Georgians.  That reality showed up first in IRS data and in total personal income data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) and later in a BEA report on county-level gross domestic product.  As Covid-19 began to spread, I found myself thinking it might be tougher on rural Georgia.  If the Great Recession hit Metro Atlanta harder, it recovered faster and has since widened its economic, education and health gap with rural Georgia; rural Georgia has generally lost population and seen its local economies contract, which, I figured, left it in a weakened position to deal with a global pandemic.  Now comes Politico with a really good piece fleshing out my general concerns.  It’s worth reading.
  • While the Covid-19 data is still developing day-by-day, there are already some interesting oddities and riddles that are worth noting and wondering about:
    • College towns.  One early theory was that college towns would be hard hit, given their population of young people who still think they’re invincible.  Well, yes and no.  Clarke County, home of the University of Georgia, had 35 cases as of mid-day Saturday, just over half of the 67 reported by Carroll County, home of West Georgia College.  Those weren’t all that surprising.  The bigger riddles were Baldwin County (home of Georgia College and State University) with only two cases and Bulloch County (Georgia Southern) with a big goose-egg so far.  I haven’t found data on the number of tests given in each county, but both Baldwin and Bulloch are large enough that you’d have to think they’d conducted a fair number of tests.
    • Bartow County.  Other than Albany, Bartow County, just of I-75 north of Metro Atlanta, has emerged as the state’s second-hottest hot spot.  As of Saturday, Bartow County, with a population of about 106,000, had reported 116 cases, the sixth-most in the state, and its infection rate was second only to Dougherty County.  I am, I believe, reliably informed that the outbreak traced back to a large community gathering in Cartersville, but I haven’t found any published reporting on it and am going to hold off on the details for the time being.
    • Taliaferro County.  This tiny, impoverished county of about 1,700 people might be considered a prime target for Covid-19.  It’s located about a hundred miles east of Atlanta on I-20 and a far piece from any major healthcare facilities.  As it’s worked out so far, it’s one of only two counties on that route between Atlanta and Augusta that still hasn’t reported a positive Covid-19 test (neighboring Warren County is the other).  One likely reason is a paucity of testing in the county, but another could be an early decision by the local school superintendent, Allen Fort.  As Jim Galloway reported nearly two weeks ago, Fort didn’t wait for guidance from Governor Kemp or anybody else; he acted on his own and sent all his students home.  In doing so, he may have flattened the curve in his little county.

Stay tuned.  I’ll follow up with more early next week.

Covid-19 may stir a perfect storm for rural Georgia

When I began work on this project some years back and came up with the title “Trouble in God’s Country,” I was thinking about things like the urban-rural divide in economics, education, healthcare, and politics.  It never crossed my mind that a new plague might come along that would stir up what might be a perfect storm for rural Georgia.

To be sure, Metro Atlanta and the state’s other urban areas will obviously take huge beatings in this as well, but rural communities may prove even more vulnerable, and not even in the long run.  Without even bothering to run through my usual tons of data, we can take judicial note of certain indisputable realities.

The most basic is that Georgia’s rural communities are older and less healthy.  That alone puts a Covid-19 target on their backs.  Add to that a healthcare delivery system that might charitably be described as frail and you’ve already got the makings of a heaping helping of trouble in God’s country.

But there’s more.  You can stir politics, religion, and crime into the mix.  As I’ve documented before, rural Georgia is overwhelmingly Republican and pro-Trump, and there’s already national polling by Pew Research suggesting that Republicans are taking Covid-19 less seriously than Democrats (or at least were until President Trump and FOX News began shifting tone earlier this week).

From the Pew report on its polling: “ … a vast majority of Republicans (76%) say the news media have exaggerated the risks associated with the virus – 53% greatly and 24% slightly – while far fewer (17%) say the media have gotten it about right. Democrats, on the other hand, are much more likely than Republicans to think the news media have gotten the level of risk about right (41%).”

As for religion and crime, it’s not for nothing that the region of Georgia from the gnat line south is known as both the Bible Belt and the Prison Belt.  Both churches and prisons hold the potential to serve as lethal vectors for the bug.  I started canvassing rural Georgia contacts earlier this week and one common theme in the feedback revolved around a reluctance to cancel church services; as things have worked out, it sounds like the cancellations are indeed taking place, maybe a week later than they might have.  In several communities, churches are reportedly planning to live-stream their services via Facebook and other technologies.

Prisons are a different story.  According to the Georgia Department of Corrections’ website, its 34 state prisons house 52,000 felony offenders, and it’s difficult to imagine a more active breeding ground for Covid-19.  The vast majority of those prisons are in rural Georgia, most of them in Middle and South Georgia (as the red dots on GDC’s facilities map, here, illustrate). DOC Facilities Map

Those prison populations are constantly ebbing and flowing, as newly sentenced felons begin serving their time and those who have completed their sentences are freed.  Meanwhile, thousands of rural Georgians who work at those prisons come and go to fill the three daily shifts at each of them.

As it turns out, one of those employees has already tested positive for Covid-19, as both GDC and the AJC reported yesterday, although GDC hasn’t said where the employee worked.  So far, the department hasn’t reported any inmate infections, but it’s obviously a significant concern: GDC’s home page currently features a “COVID-19 UPDATES” banner and a “Covid19 Response” statement detailing the department’s response to the bug.  Among other things, all visitation has been suspended and prisoner movement is being limited to “required medical transfers.”

As for positive tests around the state, those now appear to be seeping rapidly into rural Georgia.  Any early expectations that the virus might do most of its damage in urban areas and not find its way to the hinterlands is being undercut by daily reports from the Georgia Department of Public Health.   The number of positive tests went from 197 in 28 counties on Tuesday to 287 in 34 counties on Wednesday (with the home counties of a half-dozen victims “unknown”).

If, as these maps suggest, it turned up first in Metro Atlanta and North Georgia, it is now making its way below the gnat line.

And there’s some evidence that the reality on the ground in some localities is outpacing the information being reported on a daily basis by DPH.  Albany and Dougherty County have emerged as a South Georgia hot spot, and DPH today put the number of confirmed cases there at 20.  But at about the same time DPH was posting its Wednesday numbers, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany was holding a press conference where, according to the Albany Herald, it reported two more deaths (for a total of four), a total of 40 patients who had tested positive (and were either in the hospital or at home), and nearly 500 more area residents who were still awaiting test results.  Six Phoebe Putney employees have tested positive, the Herald reported.

And Thursday evening, the Tallahassee (Fla.) Memorial Hospital reported that an Early County, Ga., woman had died there of the virus.

_________

If rural Georgians were a little slower than their city cousins to react to the Coronavirus threat, they may now be taking it more seriously.  I canvassed a half-dozen contacts early in the week and then again yesterday and today.  All reported that the pace seemed to be picking up.  One South Georgia contact who reported earlier this week that people were mocking the “panic” and not changing their behavior indicated earlier today that was changing; more and more businesses cutting hours and more people were self-isolating.

Another contact, Jason Dunn, executive director of the Fitzgerald and Ben Hill County Development Authority, emailed me around mid-afternoon that it was “safe to say that we are seeing changes in day-to-day behavior.  Foot traffic in our office is down and the citizens that continuously support our locally owned eateries are more than likely to get their meal to-go rather than dining in.  The best that I can put it is that social distancing is tough in a tight-knit community, yet a majority of our citizens are taking precautions.”

And this from a northeast Georgia weekly newspaper editor: “Day-to-day has changed drastically. A lot of parents are getting a crash course in home-schooling and remote, electronic and digital learning. It also shows in dramatic fashion how a lack of adequate broadband can be a real disadvantage to a rural county without that kind of infrastructure!

“The question about the seriousness of the situation being slow to take hold was a good one,” he added.  “On a Tuesday, the track coach was planning on winning the state championship. On Friday he was bemoaning the fact that his team would probably not even get a shot at that achievement.”