The number of Georgia counties recording more deaths than births jumped again in 2021, due largely to a rising death toll that owed primarily to a combination of Covid-19 fatalities and lethal drug overdoses, according to data published Friday by the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH).
The total number of Georgia’s 159 counties reporting more deaths than births rose to 123, up from 118 in 2020. That continued a trend that started about a decade ago. Up until 2010, the number of counties reporting more deaths than births had never reached 20, but since then — with a couple of exceptions — that number has climbed steadily. Pre-Covid, it appeared to have peaked at just under 80 counties in 2018 and ’19, then jumped to 118 in 2020, the first Covid year.
Statewide, the difference in the number of births and deaths narrowed to 11,618, the smallest gap ever recorded by DPH, as the chart at right illustrates. The total number of births actually ticked up slightly, but that gain was more than wiped out by the much bigger increase in deaths.
That gain took place almost entirely in TIGC’s Metro Atlanta region and on the Georgia coast, as this table shows.
Net Births by TIGC Region: 2019-2021
This table shows the difference between births and deaths for all five Trouble in God’s Country regions for the past three years. That difference has shrunk across the state, and a combination of Covid-19 and drug overdoses produced more deaths than births in predominantly rural areas of Middle, North, and South Georgia starting in 2019. The net gain in births was cut in half from 2019 to 2020, then nearly in half again in 2021. (Data Source: Georgia Department of Public Health)
While the counties reporting more deaths than births were mostly sparsely-populated rural counties, more than a half-dozen significant regional counties suffered more net deaths. Floyd and Walker counties, neighbors in northwest Georgia, reported the largest numbers of net deaths, 374 and 303, respectively. Other important regional population centers reporting more deaths than births included Bibb County (280), Glynn (261), Laurens (211), Thomas (192), and Dougherty (99).
Covid-19 claimed 15,790 Georgia lives in 2021, 14 percent of the state’s total deaths and an increase of 67.2 percent over 2020’s Covid death toll of 9,406. Fatal drug overdoses totaled 2,390, a 25.3 percent increase over 2020 and a 72 percent increase over 2019.
The Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) is up with its 2021 county-level birth data and the good news is that the number of births last year rebounded a bit from the Covid dip in 2020. The less than good news is that the rebound was well short of the 2019 numbers and it looks like the state’s long-running baby bust is continuing.
Altogether, Georgia recorded 123,971 new births in 2021 — up nearly 1,600 from 2020 but still nearly 2,300 under pre-Covid’s 2019 totals. Nearly 98 percent of those added births took place generally north of the gnat line, in TIGC’s 12-county Metro Atlanta region or its 41-county North Georgia territory. Combined, the 106 counties in Georgia’s Middle Georgia, South Georgia and Coastal Georgia regions added only 38 births to their 2020 totals.
However, those high-level numbers mask some interesting racial and localized differences — principally a big difference in the number of White and Black births. Statewide, White births were up 2,742 in 2021, an increase of 4.0 percent over 2020 and, in fact, a slight increase over 2019. Black births, however, were down 1,422, or 3.1 percent versus 2020.
This represents something of a change from recent years, although it’s impossible to know whether it’s simply a one-year anomaly or perhaps the beginning of a trend. Whites, with a larger population in Georgia, have always produced more births than Blacks, but the trend lines have moved in rough parallel throughout the quarter-century for which DPH has data — with a couple of notable exceptions.
As the graph below shows, between 1994 and 2006, the gap between White and Black births had gradually widened — peaking at about 45,000 for several years in the early 2000s. But White births declined dramatically in 2007 and ’08, probably at least partly due to the Great Recession, and then continued to decline at a slower pace for several years. Black births also declined, although not as precipitously, with the result that the difference in the number of White and Black births has narrowed dramatically in recent years. That difference peaked at 45,553 in 2004; by 2020, it had been cut in half, down to 22,563.
Of the total 123,971 births recorded in Georgia last year, just under two-thirds took place in the 53 counties that comprise TIGC’s Metro Atlanta and North Georgia regions — 81,421 versus the 42,550 in the 106 counties in TIGC’s Middle, South and Coastal Georgia regions.
These numbers — in combination with the aforementioned fact that nearly 98 percent of the births over and above 2020’s totals took place in Metro Atlanta and North Georgia — are in line with the long-running shift in population to the northern half of the state.
The 2021 numbers include some unexpected anomalies. The largest percentage increase in births, for instance, took place in tiny Montgomery County, a slice-of-pie-shaped county in southeast Georgia. The number of births there increased to 124 from 87, an increase of 37, or 42.5 percent. About three hours to the west, Calhoun County was at the opposite end of the spectrum. The number of births there fell to 31 from 52, a drop of 40.4 percent.
Another somewhat surprising development is the unbroken string of counties along the Alabama line in northwest Georgia that saw the number of births fall in 2021 — Dade, Walker, Chattooga, Floyd, Polk, Haralson, Carroll and Heard on the Alabama line, plus Whitfield and Gordon just to their east.
For several years now, TIGC has monitored county-level births and deaths and reported on the rising number of Georgia counties recording more deaths than births. Last year, that number jumped to 118 counties, up from 78 in 2019, thanks in part to Covid. The state’s county-level mortality data for 2021 should be published by DPH in July or August.
The number of Georgia counties reporting more deaths than births jumped to 118 in 2020, up dramatically from 78 in 2019, according to new county-level mortality data published Monday by the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH).
The increase was generally expected. DPH reported in June that 2020 births were down 3.1 percent from 2019, and the Covid-19 death toll seemed certain to drive a big increase in the number of counties where burials outnumbered births.
All told, births still outnumbered deaths in Georgia, but by the narrowest margin recorded in the quarter-century DPH has been reporting county-level birth and death data. The 19,265 surplus of births over deaths was less than half the 40,000-plus surplus recorded in 2018 and ’19, and not even a quarter of the 83,051 surplus record set in 2007.
As the graph at the right shows, the birth and death lines have been converging for nearly 15 years now. One curiosity in the 2020 death numbers is that Covid-19 accounted for only a little over half of the total increase in the number of deaths over 2019.
Statewide, the total number of deaths skyrocketed from 85,641 in 2019 to 103,114 in 2020 — and Covid-19 was cited as the cause of death in only 9,446 of those 2020 cases.
Even without the Covid-19 deaths, 2020 would have set a record for the total number of deaths and the percentage increase over the previous year. With the Covid-19 deaths included, the number of deaths rose 20.4 percent over 2019; without the Covid-19 deaths, the increase was 9.4 percent. In the 25 years DPH has been reporting data, the number of deaths had never hit five percent in a single year — and the increase was usually much less.
(A cursory review of the DPH data failed to turn up a big chunk of deaths attributable to a single cause of death — although a number of categories appeared to be up by somewhat higher percentages. TIGC will continue to sift through the data for a more complete explanation.)
Also unsurprising: the surplus of births over deaths was concentrated primarily in and around Metro Atlanta and, to a lesser degree, the Georgia coast, as this map illustrates:
Indeed, TIGC's North Georgia, Middle Georgia and South Georgia regions all posted more deaths than births. TIGC's 12 Metro Atlanta counties reported 21,050 more births than deaths while TIGC's seven Coastal Georgia counties posted a surplus of 1,926 births -- this despite the fact that Glynn County suffered the biggest death-to-birth deficit in the state. It posted 313 more deaths than births, and 2020 was only the second time in the past quarter-century that it hasn't recorded more births. Gwinnett County posted the biggest surplus of births over deaths -- 5,331.
Few if any of these numbers are surprising, and they are in line with county-level 2020 Census data that was released last week.
The number of counties reporting more deaths than births began to rise about a decade ago, and was first reported by TIGC several years ago. The big jump from 78 to 118 counties -- more than two-thirds of Georgia's total of 159 counties -- was far and away the biggest one-year increase since the current trendline started rising in the wake of the Great Recession.
The table below shows 2020 births and deaths for all 159 Georgia counties, along with the number of Covid-19 deaths and the percentage of total deaths caused by Covid-19.
I noted back in September (here and here) that Covid-19 case and death rates in Georgia’s Republican-voting rural counties had squeaked past those in the state’s more heavily-populated Democratic counties.
I’ve been keeping an eye on that trend, but haven’t bothered to write much about it since then. Last week’s presidential election results, however, seem to invite a fresh look.
As a little more preface, it seems worth noting that the virus did the vast majority of its early damage in major urban areas, including Metro Atlanta, while rural areas seemed skeptical it would ever find its way to them. It did, of course, and has been exacting its heaviest toll on most of those rural areas for a couple of months now.
For this update, I’ve pulled the Georgia Department of Public Health’s (DPH) Covid-19 status report for election day, November 3rd, and sorted it by counties that went (according to the latest election results published by the Secretary of State’s office) for President Trump versus those that went for the Democratic nominee and apparent president-elect, Joe Biden.
This table summarizes that data sort.
As of November 3, the 30 Biden counties had better overall case rates, death rates and 14-day case rates than the 129 Trump counties. Even with a significantly smaller population, the Trump counties have now suffered more total deaths than the Biden counties — 4,017 to 3,814. Perhaps even more worrying are the 14-day case rates, which are a leading indicator of things to come. In the combined Trump counties, that rate was, as of November 3rd, 27.6 percent worse than the Biden counties.
Because the virus is oblivious to county lines, it’s difficult to demonstrate county-to-county correlations between Covid-19 rates and Trump-Biden voting splits.
And, indeed, there are any number of examples of counties whose Covid-19 performance doesn’t match its politics. Glascock County, for instance, gave Trump 89.6 percent of its total vote (second only to Brantley County) but has the fourth-best case rate in the state. (At the same time, and consistent with the 14-day case rate pattern referenced above, Glascock’s 14-day case rate is just under 300 cases per 100,000 people, easily enough to put it in the White House Coronovirus Task Force’s red zone.)
Just to the west of Glascock, though, Hancock County delivered nearly 72 percent of its vote to Biden but, as of November 3rd, had far and away the state’s worst death rate (549.25 per every 100,000 people) and one of the worst case rates.
If, however, clear county-level correlations are difficult to find, mapping the data does bring regional pictures into some focus. First, this map (at right) shows Trump-Biden split as of the general election results available Sunday, November 8th, on the Georgia Secretary of State’s website. (These results appear to be nearly complete, but haven’t been officially certified yet.)
Now compare that general election map with maps below of election-day Covid-19 data from DPH. In these maps, I’ve used the same red/blue color scheme I used in the political map, but here they tell different stories. In each case, counties shown in blue had Covid-19 case rates, death rates, or 14-day case rates that were better (lower) than the state average reflected in the November 3rd DPH data; counties in red had worse (higher) rates. The darker the shade of blue or red, the better or worse they were compared to the state average.
None of the Covid-19 maps is a perfect match for the political map above, obviously, but a comparison does tell several stories. Probably the most obvious is that heavily-Democratic Metro Atlanta is now beating the state average on all three Covid-19 metrics mapped above. Early on, it bore the brunt of the virus’s attack, and still isn’t out of the woods, but now has easily the best overall case rate, death rate and 14-day case rate numbers in the state.
A second is that the swath of heavily-Republican counties in east-central and interior southeast Georgia is now suffering higher than average Covid-19 case and death rates, with more of a mixed picture on 14-day case rates. The virus took its time getting to this part of Georgia, but has now been raging there for several weeks.
Southwest Georgia, though, seems to be cooling off. This politically-mixed region of the state still carries high case and death rates, the results of an early Covid-19 attack that at one time gave this part of the state some of the worst virus numbers on the planet. But it’s 14-day case rates — reflecting current trends — are now among the lowest in the state.
The northwestern corner of the state, meanwhile, seems to be on fire, as the map to the left illustrates. Perhaps the most conservative and Republican region of the state, Northwest Georgia had for the most part avoided the worst of the virus, until recently. As of election day, 18 contiguous counties in that part of the state had 14-day case rates of 200 per 100,000 people or more.
Does any of this demonstrate a cause-and-effect relationship between local political inclinations and the impact of Covid-19? It’s probably a little early to draw that conclusion, although the question certainly seems a fair one to raise.
Early on, it was possible to foresee (even without considering politics) that rural areas might well suffer more from the virus than their city cousins, primarily because they were home to older, less healthy populations that had less access to healthcare and whose healthcare systems were often frail and sometimes non-existent. (TIGC said as much in this post back in March.)
But the virus has clearly become one of the most heavily politicized issues in America in the months since the pandemic rolled in. President Trump has openly feuded with his public health experts and for the most part refused to wear a mask or encourage Americans to do so, while former Vice President Biden and state and local Democratic leaders have taken the opposite tack. (Trump, of course, contracted the virus, but recovered after several days at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and a significant number of his close aides have also come down with the bug.)
It’s also worth noting that Georgia is part of a national trend. The Daily Yonder, which covers rural issues, has documented Covid-19’s spread across rural America (see maps below) as well as the political overlap.
“Counties that voted by a landslide (more than a 20-point margin) for Trump in 2016 have a recent infection rate 75% higher than counties that voted by a landslide for Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016,” The Yonder reported in this piece last week.
It remains to be seen whether a President Biden can prevail upon rural citizens and their leaders to follow conventional public health counsel on practices like wearing masks and social distancing, let alone how long that might take to have an effect. But it’s clear now that changes will be required to bring the virus to heel in the state’s — and nation’s — rural areas.
Taliaferro County hardly ever ranks anywhere close to the top of any list of Georgia’s 159 counties. A small, poverty-stricken patch of dirt that straddles I-20 a couple of counties east of Augusta, it’s home to about 1,600 people and not much else.
The Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) puts its economy in 144th place in its latest Job Tax Credit Rankings. In its health rankings for Georgia counties, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation lists Taliaferro 123rd for health outcomes and 137th for health factors.
For the moment, though, Taliaferro County is arguably outperforming all 158 other Georgia counties in one important category: holding Covid-19 at bay.
As of today’s Covid-19 report from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH), it’s the only county in the state that still hasn’t suffered a death at the hands of the virus, which has claimed more than 6,000 lives statewide. Taliaferro also has the third-best confirmed case rate in the state.
This is, frankly, something of a very pleasant surprise. The AJC’s Jim Galloway meandered out to Taliaferro County six months ago and did a nice piece on a nervy, bleeding-edge decision by the local school superintendent, Allen Fort, to shut down all the county’s schools and send his students home for what he said would be a long haul.
At the time, the bug was just getting started. As Galloway noted in his column, fewer than 75 cases had been reported in Fulton, DeKalb and Cobb counties — combined. Neither Georgia state government nor the White House had offered any clear guidance, let alone told folks to hunker down and shelter in place.
Fort told Galloway he took his cue from a couple of major economic decisions. The NCAA had announced the day before that it was cancelling its 2020 Final Four, which was to have been held about 100 miles west in Atlanta, and that morning, Augusta National, 50 or so miles to the east, postponed the 2020 Master’s Tournament.
If the virus was dangerous enough to prompt the NCAA and the Master’s to step back from hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, Fort thought, maybe his little school system ought to take it seriously too.
Still, it was far from clear that Fort’s strategy would work. The county is one of the poorest in the state and almost bereft of healthcare services. Its first, last and only line of defense against the virus was a small community health clinic that operated only a few days a week.
Further, while Taliaferro is located pretty much dead center in the middle of nowhere, it nonetheless straddles I-20 and therefore might have been a sitting duck for the virus. In his column, Galloway wrote that he had wished the clinic staff well, but he seemed worried. ” … it’s not likely to be a fair fight,” he wrote.
Maybe not, but so far Taliaferro is holding its own.
In addition to the fact that it hasn’t given up any deaths, the county has so far had only 22 of the nearly 300,000 in-state Covid-19 cases recorded so far.
With a population of a little over 1,600, its case rate today was 1,348 per 100,000 people. That was the third lowest case rate in the state, behind only Long County (1,260 cases per 100,000) and Glascock (1,289). The state case rate today was 2,749 cases per 100,000 people, more than double Taliaferro’s.
It’s also worth noting that Taliaferro is doing better than all five of its contiguous neighbors — Wilkes, Oglethorpe, Greene, Hancock and Warren counties. Combined, those five counties had reported 1,651 confirmed cases and had a combined case rate of 2,878 per 100,000 as of today’s report. They had also suffered a collective total of 87 deaths.
The Covid-19 pandemic is, of course, far from over, and Taliaferro County’s fortunes could easily change. If the infection does find its way into the little county, it could wreak havoc before anybody realized it was there.
Hopefully that won’t happen, and, for the moment at least, it seems worth taking a minute to recognize a gutsy decision that almost certainly saved some lives.
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.
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).
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.”
A young up-and-comer in the Georgia Republican Party made headlines recently when he proclaimed that Republicans have a “fertility advantage” and suggested that a core GOP strategy going forward would be, basically, to out-breed the Democrats.
Brant Frost V, who is the second vice chair of the state GOP, told a recent meeting of Oconee County Republicans:
“Christian and conservative women have a 35 percent fertility advantage over Democrat women. And the more conservative a woman is, the more likely she is to be married and have lots of kids – three, four, five, six kids. And the more liberal and leftist a woman is, the less likely she is to even be married and have any children at all …”
I’m not making this up. You can watch the video here. Frost begins his remarks about an hour and seven minutes into the meeting.
As political Hail Marys go, you’ve got to give Frost credit for audacity. I’m not sure it’ll work politically, but it’s bound to have a major impact on the Christian conservative singles-bar scene. (“Hey, Baby, you wanna help save America from socialism?”)
But here’s the thing: Frost has absolutely zeroed in on the Republicans’ political problem.
According to data recently posted by the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH), 79 of Georgia’s 159 counties had more deaths than births in 2018.
That’s actually news: it’s a record high, and it extends an alarming trend that started about a decade ago. DPH’s public databases of births and deaths go back to 1994, and for about the first 15 years the number of counties reporting more deaths than births floated between about 10 and 20. But that changed starting in 2010, as this graph shows.
These numbers are politically relevant to Frost’s grand strategy for a couple of reasons. First, 78 of the 79 counties are rural; the only one that’s not is Fayette County, long recognized as a popular redoubt for retirees well past child-bearing age. It’s also dependably Republican.
Second, Georgia’s rural regions have voted overwhelmingly Republican in the recent past. Georgia’s current Republican governor, Brian Kemp, owes his narrow election over Democrat Stacey Abrams last year to extraordinarily high turnout and huge margins in rural Georgia.
And the importance of Frost’s vision – for conservative women to have “three, four, five, six” babies each – becomes even clearer when you drill down into the data and break it down by race. Whites voted three-to-one for Kemp while blacks went more than nine-to-one for Abrams, according to an election-season poll of Georgia voters.
The number of counties reporting more white deaths than births was 104. Eighty-four of those counties voted for Kemp.
These maps should leave little doubt about the vital importance of Frost’s strategy. The first one spotlights the counties that had more white deaths than births in red; the second one shows the counties that went Republican in the 2018 gubernatorial in red and the ones that voted Democratic in blue. It’s obviously not a perfect match, but it’s enough of an overlap that it ought to give your average GOP strategist a little heartburn.
Further, 57 of Kemp’s counties lost population between 2012 and 2017, according to Census Bureau estimates, and most of the Kemp counties that grew did so at rates that lagged the state average and, critically, traditionally Democratic urban areas.
That’s not the end of Frost’s political math problems. At this point, there’s a fair body of polling data to suggest that Millennials lean decidedly toward the Democratic Party. Last year Pew Research put the percentage of Millennials who consider themselves “consistently” or “mostly” conservative at 12 percent versus 57 percent who put themselves in a liberal category; the remainder put themselves in a “mixed” category.
The picture may be a little better for conservatives among Millennials who are actually registered to vote: Pew put that split at 59-32 in favor of Team Blue. But it also found a gender divide that may impact the Frost strategy. Some 41 percent of Millennial males tilted Republican, while only 23 percent of Millennial females did so.
For the sake of what I know is a dubious illustration, let’s say that all the Millennial women in counties that went for Kemp are the type of good Christian conservative women Frost has in mind and that the Millennial women in the Abrams counties are all godless Commies.
As the actual math on this works out, the women in the Kemp counties already have a consistently higher birth rate than the ones in the Abrams county; in 2018, the Millennial birth rate in the Kemp counties was 79.8 births per 1,000 women versus 72.7 in the Abrams counties.
The problem is, the Kemp women are badly outnumbered.
In 2018, 647,492 Millennial women in the Kemp counties gave birth to 51,687 babies (who, in this scenario, will all grow up to be good Republican voters). The 886,215 Millennial women in the Abrams counties delivered 64,453 baby Democrats.
To close that gap of nearly 13,000, Millennial women in the Kemp counties will have to up their game; just matching the Democratic output would require them to raise their annual birth rate to just under 100 births per 1,000 women. This arithmetic is admittedly (shall we say) speculative, but it seems clear that the good Christian women in Frost’s political fantasies will have their work cut out for them.
Now, it turns out there may be a silver lining for Republicans in all this data. The same Pew research that found that conservatives had a surplus of men also found that liberals had more women and might not have enough men to go around. This creates an opportunity for those extra conservative males to try their luck with liberal women (friendly pro tip: leave the MAGA cap in the pick-up).
Of course, such a development might create an entirely new classification problem for the Department of Public Health. DPH keeps track of all the state’s births and deaths and classifies them in different ways – including ethnicity and race (white, black, multiracial). If a Republican cross-pollination initiative works, DPH might have to add a political classification – Republican, Democrat, or Multi-partisan.
Have a question or suggestion for TIGC? Email Charlie Hayslett at firstname.lastname@example.org