Here’s a little breaking news on the coronavirus front: The Covid-19 death rate is now higher, collectively, in the Georgia counties that voted for Governor Brian Kemp in 2018 than in those that went for his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams. What’s more, the difference in the rate of confirmed cases is narrowing dramatically.
This is a little bit of a surprise. Early on, the virus hit densely-populated urban Democratic precincts much harder than remote, sparsely-populated Republican communities, and there was a good bit of credible speculation that the gap between the two might never fully close.
The New York Times took a deep dive into national data in late May and posited that while case and death rates were rising in conservative areas, it wasn’t “on a scale that would close the gap in the virus’s impact on red and blue counties.”
That’s no longer true in Georgia. The Covid-19 death rate in the 130 mostly rural counties carried by Kemp in 2018 squeaked past that of the 29 largely urban counties that went for Abrams on August 25th.
The Kemp and Abrams death rate trend lines converged through the middle part of August. They were nearly identical by August 24th — 47.52 deaths per 100,000 people in the Abrams counties versus 47.43 in the Kemp counties. The next day, the lines crossed — 48.37 deaths per 100,000 people in the Abrams counties versus 48.52 in the Kemp counties — and they’ve been separating, fairly rapidly, ever since, as the graph above shows.
The Abrams counties have so far suffered more overall deaths than the Kemp counties: 3,095 out of population of 5.67 million versus 2,833 out of a population of 4.95 million. But even that may be changing. Since the Kemp and Abrams death rate trendlines crossed on August 25th, there have been 785 Covid-19 deaths in Georgia. Of those, 353 occurred in the Abrams counties while 432 took place in Kemp country.
While the Abrams counties are still reporting higher rates of confirmed Covid-19 cases than the Kemp counties, those trend lines are also converging. On August 25th — the day the death rate trend lines crossed — the 29 Abrams counties had a combined confirmed case rate of 2316.7 cases per 100,000 while the combined case rate for the 130 Kemp counties was 2178.6, a difference of 6.3 percent. By September 8th, the difference was down to 1.9 percent — 2529.9 cases per 100,000 people for the Abrams counties versus 2483.2 for the Kemp counties.
Put another way, during that August 25-September 8 period, the Abrams counties reported a total of 12,089 new confirmed Covid-19 cases while the Kemp counties reported 15,069 new cases.
These trends can, of course, shift. The recent death and case rate trends appear to have been driven largely by the virus’s Sherman-like march across east-central and southeast Georgia, which is heavily rural and went overwhelmingly for Kemp. All it would take to alter — indeed, reverse — these patterns would be a major outbreak in one or more of the major urban counties.
Still, the current data and trends would appear to put to rest the early thinking that the virus would be satisfied with feasting on Democrats in densely-populated urban areas. It took it a while, but it finally found its way to virtually every corner of the state’s rural areas, which have older, less healthy populations and frailer healthcare delivery systems. Those Republican hunting grounds now appear to be just as fruitful for Covid-19 as the big Democratic cities.
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.
A quick update on the analysis I posted last Saturday comparing the COVID-19 performance of six Republican-led Old South states with the three West Coast states led by Democratic governors:
A week ago, the regional comparison looked like this:
Today, based on the latest data available from all nine states’ public health websites, the regional comparison looks like this:
A week ago, the Old South states already had nearly 6,000 more confirmed cases than the West Coast, but still had fewer deaths. In the six days since I pulled that first batch of data, the numbers of confirmed cases and deaths have increased at a much more rapid pace in the Old South than on the West Coast, which bore the initial brunt of the COVID-19 onslaught.
Confirmed cases are up 74.4 percent across the Old South states versus 54.4 percent on the West Coast. But the change in the death counts is even more dramatic. A week ago, the Old South still trailed the West Coast in that category, but since then COVID-19 deaths across the south have shot up by 121.4 percent versus 80.8 percent in the west; as a result, the Old South now has significantly more deaths than the West Coast.
As I acknowledged in last week’s report, there are several obvious differences between the two regions and their various states. The Old South is both less healthy and more religious than the West Coast; it is plagued by comorbidities that constitute the kind of underlying medical conditions that make people more vulnerable to the virus, and its residents have been slower to give up the kind of large religious gatherings that are now recognized as breeding grounds for COVID-19.
Another obvious difference, though, has been in the public policy approach to tackling the virus. The Democratic governors on the West Coast acted earlier and more decisively than their Republican Old South counterparts to shut down their states, as I detailed in last week’s post.
The current state-by-state results look like this:
Georgia now has the highest COVID-19 infection and mortality rate of any of the Old South states, and is second only to Washington, whose Seattle outbreak was one of the nation’s first epicenters, among the nine states. Georgia’s poor numbers are driven in significant measure by the degree to which the virus has ravaged nearly a dozen counties in deep southwest Georgia.
I hope to flesh out the Georgia situation in another post over the weekend.
It’s probably a little early for this kind of analysis, but our nation’s every-state-for-itself approach to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic is already generating some interesting contrasts between different states and even regions of the country.
I’ve been following the differences between Georgia and North Carolina, neighboring southeastern states with nearly identical populations but very different COVID-19 results. North Carolina continues to have substantially fewer confirmed cases, hospitalizations and deaths — despite performing a great many more tests than Georgia. The principal difference between the two states appears to be political: North Carolina’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, acted earlier and more decisively to begin closing down his state than his Republican counterpart, Brian Kemp, here in Georgia.
Today I decided to expand that analysis and look at two regions of the country: the West Coast (made up of California, Oregon and Washington) and the Old South (comprised in this analysis of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee). As it happens, these two regions also have very comparable populations: 52.0 million in the Old South versus 51.4 million on the West Coast.
This comparison also gives us the same political split. The West Coast is famously deep blue; all three states have liberal Democratic governors. The Old South is bright red and governed by proudly right-wing politicians.
So how are they doing? Let’s look first at the regional numbers.
The state-by-state numbers look like this:
The West Coast, which suffered the country’s first COVID-19 blows as the virus moved in from China, has actually (as of the numbers available this morning on state websites today) recorded 43 more deaths than the Old South — but significantly fewer confirmed cases. The Old South may have recorded 8.6 percent fewer deaths than the West Coast, but it’s posted 22.6 percent more infections.
Perhaps more telling are the COVID-19 infection and mortality rates, which I’ve calculated using a standard formula: [(Confirmed Cases or Deaths/Population)*100,000].
This is, of course, a complex situation, with a great many variables at work. The Old South starts at a disadvantage to its West Coast counterparts because it is both less healthy and more religious. The higher percentages of comorbidities such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease constitute the kinds of “underlying medical conditions” that make people more vulnerable to COVID-19, and places of worship are among the mass gatherings that are now recognized as natural breeding grounds for the bug. (I’ll try to flesh out these points in a later post, but you can find good rankings on health and religiosity here and here.)
That said, it seems increasingly difficult to argue that politics and public policy choices aren’t playing a significant role in how different parts of the country fare in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The West Coast governors acted well ahead of their Old South counterparts to begin shutting down their states. Indeed, probably the first major American politician to take such action was San Francisco Mayor London Breed; she imposed a shelter-in-place order on March 13 and was joined by other Northern California officials three days later. California Governor Gavin Newsom followed suit on March 19. Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who was confronted with the nation’s first major outbreak in Seattle, banned major gatherings in heavily-populated counties on March 11, and then imposed a full shelter-in-place order on March 23. Governor Kate Brown of Oregon came on board the next day.
Meanwhile, the Old South governors lagged well behind their West Coast counterparts and to a great extent deferred to local officials (only, once they did act, to upend many of the local actions). Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves initially said he had no plans to issue a statewide order but did take to Facebook Live to conduct a prayer session on March 22. Today, his state has among the nation’s highest COVID-19 infection, hospitalization and mortality rates.
Ditto Alabama. There, as the West Coast governors were shutting down their states, Governor Kaye Ivey announced on March 24 she had no plans to issue a statewide order. “We’re not California, we’re not New York, we aren’t even Louisiana,” she said.
Today, her state’s COVID-19 infection and mortality rates are worse than California’s. Both she and Reeves threw in the towel late last week and issued statewide shelter-in-place orders. As did the governors of Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. At this point, South Carolina is the only Old South hold-out.
Notably, the reluctant and belated actions by the southern governors have sowed widespread confusion. Here in Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp justified his turnaround decision to issue a shelter-in-place order with the dubious claim that he had only learned the day before that asymptomatic COVID-19 victims could spread the virus — even though public health officials had been saying as much since February.
That explanation earned him national media scorn (“Georgia Gov. Shows Just How Far Behind The World He Is On Coronavirus,” blared a HuffPost headline), but his shelter-in-place order may have done him at least as much local political damage. One presumably unintended consequence of his order was that — by superseding local ordinances — it reopened Georgia’s Atlantic beaches, including Tybee Island, Jekyll Island and St. Simons.
According to a story in today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a Republican member of the Glynn County Commission, Peter Murphy, reacted thusly: “We had carefully considered ways to keep people safe here and the governor’s order has undermined everything we were doing.” Murphy, a retired physician, had led the push to close down the local beaches.
Up the road at Tybee Island, an obviously peeved Mayor Shirley Sessions issued a statement that opened on a decidedly undiplomatic note: “As the Pentagon ordered 100,000 body bags to store the corpses of Americans killed by the Coronavirus, Governor Brian Kemp dictated that Georgia beaches must reopen, and declared any decision-makers who refused to follow these orders would face prison and/or fines.”
Mayor Sessions went on to say bluntly that she and the Tybee Island City Council “do not support” Kemp’s decision and to make clear that — while the beaches themselves might be open — the town-controlled access points and parking lots would remain closed. “At no time,” she said, “has the state designated a single point of contact to orchestrate the implementation of the Governor’s plan.”
In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis fared little better when he finally issued a stay-at-home order on Wednesday. Hours after signing that first order, The Tampa Bay Times reported that he “quietly signed another one that appeared to override restrictions put in place by local governments to halt the spread of coronavirus. However, DeSantis on Thursday said the amendment he signed does the reverse, instigating another round of confusion over the intent of his directives.”
Is all this definitive? Probably not. Again, it’s arguably a little early for this kind of analysis. But the data that’s already in is a little hard to ignore.
Over the weekend I published a post comparing Georgia’s Covid-19 performance with North Carolina’s and wondering out loud why the differences are so dramatic. Today I’ve cast a wider net and put together this table comparing Georgia with its neighboring states.
Clearly, Georgia — at least so far — is being harder hit than its five contiguous neighbors. Only Tennessee has a slightly higher Covid-19 infection rate, and Georgia leads the region in both Covid-19 deaths and hospitalizations; even Florida, with twice Georgia’s population, trails Georgia in both those categories.
The question is why? There are obviously a great many variables at work in this situation, but at this point there’s enough data in the pot to warrant a little head-scratching. Even if these southern states are using different protocols to determine who gets tested, we’re left with the fact that Georgia is outpacing its neighbors so dramatically in deaths and hospitalizations.
I’ve got lines out to several contacts in the public health world and hope to gather some informed answers to these questions over the next day or so.
[A note about the data above: The population numbers are 2019 Census Bureau estimates. The raw Covid-19 data came from each state’s respective public health website as of about mid-day today. The infection and mortality rates were calculated by dividing the number of positives or the number of deaths by the population and multiplying the result by 100,000.]
Another interesting chunk of Covid-19 data comes from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington. It’s now out with state-by-state projections of how the now infamous Coronavirus curve — or wave — is likely to move across each state and its healthcare system. IHME has developed a computer model that stirs together data on available healthcare resources with testing and mortality rates to date.
The projections for Georgia are grim. IHME’s model predicts that Georgia will hit its “peak resource use” on April 22, when it calculates that the state will be short 755 ICU beds and 1,075 ventilators. It also projects our “deaths per day” will peak the following day, April 23, at 84, and that the state will suffer a total of 2,777 deaths by August 4, 2020.
These projections are generally in line with the performance numbers posted above. North Carolina is projected to hit its peak resource demand on the same day, April 22, but will only be short 278 beds and 676 ventilators; its “deaths per day” are projected to peak at 56, and total deaths by August 4 are forecast at 1,721.
EIG annually assigns “Distressed Community Index” scores to all 3,000-plus counties in the nation, as well as all cities with populations of 50,000 or more. It does this using a formula based on seven socioeconomic factors; a few years back, it named Albany one of the 10 most distressed mid-sized cities in the country.
This new EIG report offers four key takeaways:
The uninsured rate for residents of distressed counties is much higher than those living elsewhere.
Residents of distressed counties are more likely to be elderly and susceptible to complications resulting from coronavirus infection.
Life-threatening health disorders are more prevalent and more dangerous in distressed areas.
Life expectancy is already significantly shorter in economically distressed places.
After fleshing out each of those points, EIG then turns its attention to the state of healthcare systems in distressed communities. It reports that it had analyzed more than a decade’s worth of American Hospital Association (AHA) data and found that distressed communities had seen a 16 percent reduction in the number of hospital beds between 2006 and 2017. This report doesn’t offer a state- or county-level breakdown, but rural Georgia has almost certainly suffered that level of loss of beds over the past decade or so.
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. The 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. As 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.
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 MetroAtlanta.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.
(Note: I wrote this yesterday afternoon and decided to sleep on it and give it a fresh read-through this morning. In the process, I got scooped by The New York Times, which is leading this morning’s web edition with a terrific story on this same issue at https://nyti.ms/2VyTbam.)
Lately President Trump has taken to proclaiming that the United States is “full.” He said it a few times over the last few days and has tweeted it at least a couple of times, including Sunday.
Well, not really.
Let me say here that I know full well that this notion is entirely ludicrous and will no doubt subject me to all manner of ridicule, much of it probably deserved. Truth is, I’m not really suggesting anything specific. I’m not even sure what a specific recommendation would look like.
The truth is that a core problem afflicting rural America is population loss. Here in Georgia, whole regions are hollowing out. In 2017, 71 of Georgia’s 159 counties recorded more deaths than births. All but one, Glynn County, were rural.
Georgia has 33 counties with populations of less than 10,000 people. Of those, only five posted any population gains at all over the five-year period 2013 through 2017 (the most recent for which the U.S. Census Bureau has posted estimates). And of the five that did grow, only two managed to grow more than one percent – for the entire five-year period.
The 16 counties that make up the southwestern-most corner of Georgia lost more than 9,000 people in that five-year period, or 3.4 percent of their population. Only Lee County, which has evolved as the white-flight county north of Albany and Dougherty County, posted a gain (2.6 percent) for that five-year period; the other 15 all lost population.
Dougherty County, historically the economic, cultural and political center of Southwest Georgia, is bleeding population; in the 2013-2017 span, it lost 5.5 percent of its population, or more than 1,000 people a year.
It shouldn’t need to be said that losing population is generally not a good thing. The pattern in rural Georgia is that young people leave, especially if they have a college education. Population decline naturally shrinks the consumer base, and that leads to weakened sales and property tax revenues. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that some areas of rural Georgia are now in a death spiral.
Could it be that we have two problems here that might help solve one another?
Again, I know this is nuts, for a whole host of reasons. Neither Trump nor his loyal Republican Southern governors (who preside over many of the worst rural disaster areas in the country) would even begin to entertain a strategy of deliberately importing, say, caravans of people from Mexico and Central America to dying rural communities in South Georgia. What’s more, the vast majority of those counties voted overwhelmingly for Trump, and it’s a sure bet these are the folks who favor building that wall, even if we have to pay for it.
All that said, it’s worth noting that, to some degree, people from outside the U.S. are already finding their way to struggling rural communities, even as locals move away. Probably the most dramatic example in Georgia is Stewart County, which is one of those 16 counties in deep southwest Georgia.
Over the five-year period form 2013 through 2017, according to Census Bureau data, 552 locals moved out of Stewart County, and there were 122 more deaths than births. But 479 people from outside the United States moved into Stewart County. (Note to self: Find out what the heck’s happening in Stewart County.)
For that 16-county Southwest Georgia region, international in-migration is about the only positive trend going. For the period 2013-through-2017, literally every one of those 16 counties suffered a loss of domestic population – locals moving out. Half that group had at least some international in-migration. Altogether, the 16-county region lost 13,515 domestic residents and got back about one-tenth of that – 1,332 people – in international migrants.
As a region, Southwest Georgia is still reporting more births than deaths, but the margin is narrowing. Eleven of the 16 counties posted more deaths than births for the 2013-through-2017 period, and not one of the 16 is experiencing anything that could be considered a positive trend in its birth-to-death ratio.
As this graph shows, these trends have been a long time developing. The number of births in the region began to drop precipitously in 2007, and the number of deaths began a slower climb in 2011. If the current trends continue, these lines will cross within a few years.
It will, of course, take a lot more than new population growth to revitalize rural Georgia’s struggling counties and communities. But without that new population, it’s not clear that much else will matter.
For the third time in this piece, I know what I’m suggesting here is crazy and has less than zero chance of happening, in any form or fashion. But for South Georgia and much of the rest of rural America, the only thing that might be crazier is to do nothing. For these areas, it’s way past time to start thinking outside the box.
(Notes: The data in this post was drawn primarily from two sources. The population data came from a recent update by the USDA’s Economic Research Service of U.S. Census Bureau county-level estimates. The data from the Births & Deaths chart immediately above was pulled from the Georgia Department of Health’s OASIS system. The 16 counties included in the 16-county Southwest Georgia region referenced in this piece are: Baker, Calhoun, Clay, Decatur, Dougherty, Early, Grady, Lee, Miller, Mitchell, Quitman, Randolph, Seminole, Stewart, Terrell, and Webster.)
File this under every-cloud-has-a-silver-lining. President Trump’s characterization of Haiti and various South American and African countries as “shitholes” may have torpedoed a DACA deal, triggered a global diplomatic uproar and made it more likely that the federal government will shut down this weekend. On the bright side, it also gives us a memorable way to think about the deteriorating counties and communities right here in Georgia.
Now, because I am a nice guy and don’t want to offend my friends in rural Georgia (and especially because my wife is from South Georgia and would not appreciate it), I am going to refrain from personally applying the president’s epithet to our state’s more unfortunate areas. You’ll just have to use your imagination.
In the wake of the president’s unfortunate description, his surrogates have worked hard to shift the debate from the seemingly racist overtones of Trump’s reported language to a broader discussion about a merit-based approach to immigration. I’m generalizing here, but they seem to be saying that Trump’s language wasn’t a commentary on the racial make-up of the nations he referenced (overwhelmingly black or brown), but the supposed economic prowess and productivity of their citizens.
I’m happy to take them at their word. In that context, and by that standard, it seems reasonable to suggest that America has its own share of such areas – specifically, counties and communities that have long been on a downhill slide just about any way you want to measure it: economically, educationally, in terms of health status, etc. It also seems reasonable to point out that these areas voted overwhelmingly for Donald J. Trump, and to wonder what he would like to do for voters who were among his most ardent supporters – who, indeed, were a large chunk of his base.
To be fair, Trump also won many of the state’s most affluent counties, which also tend to be deeply Republican, including growing suburban and exurban counties like Fayette, Forsyth, Cherokee and Dawson. But a review of 2016 General Election results suggests Trump owes a large measure of his margin in Georgia to what might indelicately be called the, well, you-know-what vote.
Altogether, Trump carried 127 counties in Georgia. Of the 4.7 million people living in those counties, 77.1 percent were white and 18.4 percent were black. Based on the most recent educational attainment data available, they were also home to slightly more high school dropouts than college graduates – 625,808 adults without a high school degree versus 625,161 with at least a bachelor’s degree. In contrast, the other 32 counties that went for Clinton were home to more than twice as many college graduates than high school dropouts – 1.2 million to 532,000.
That educational disadvantage translates, among other things, into weaker economic output, poorer health and higher healthcare costs. The 127 Trump counties generated $10.45 billion in 2013 federal taxes (the most recent IRS data I’ve analyzed) versus $20.5 billion from the 32 Clinton counties. At the same time, while generating basically twice as much in federal taxes, the Clinton counties (home to the larger population) consumed only about 17 percent more in FY2017 Medicaid costs than the Trump counties: $5.03 billion versus $4.3 billion. One result of that math is that Medicaid patients from the Trump counties cost the state about 2.2 percent more per patient than those in the Clinton counties: $5,136 to $5,026 each.
What’s more, if educational trends are any indication, the economic and health gaps will almost certainly continue to widen. In the fall of 2016, the University System of Georgia admitted a total of 41,906 students from throughout the state; 23,325 came from the Clinton counties and 18,581 from the Trump counties.
But those overall numbers actually mask the extent of the differences. Of the 41,906 students admitted that fall, 11,756 were accepted at the state’s top four research universities – Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia, Georgia State University and Regents University. Of those, more than twice as many were from the more economically productive Clinton counties than the Trump counties: 8,421 versus 3,335.
An even starker picture emerges when you look at the state’s most economically depressed counties. The Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) manages the state’s job tax credit program, which is designed to steer businesses and jobs to the state’s poorest counties by offering substantial tax credits for each new job created. This year, DCA lists 71 counties in its Tier 1 category. Only 721 students from those counties made it into one of the top four research universities.
And even that number is deceptive. Of the 71 Tier 1 counties, the only one in Metro Atlanta is Clayton County, which sent 233 high school graduates to one or the other of the research universities. The other 70 counties split the remaining 488 students. Ten of those failed to send a single student to one of the top four Georgia schools.
In contrast, Fulton County, whose 5th congressional district Trump once said was in “horrible shape and falling apart,” sent 3,924 students to University System institutions in the fall of 2016, more than all the Trump counties combined; 1,971 of those were selected to one of the top four research universities. It also generated 8.5 times as much in 2013 federal taxes as it consumed in FY2017 Medicaid benefits (and, of course, it went heavily for Clinton over Trump).
My purpose in writing this is in no way to denigrate Georgia’s poorest and least educated counties, or to in any way re-litigate the 2016 presidential campaign (although I suppose candor requires an acknowledgement that I am no fan of President Trump). Indeed, I have devoted a fair chunk of the past several years to researching and writing a book aimed at putting a spotlight on the widening divide between Metro Atlanta and the rest of Georgia, especially the state’s poorest areas, and to exploring public policy solutions to the challenges posed. It’s a tough nut to crack, and there are no easy solutions – either for, well, Georgia’s you-know-what holes, or for the more affluent areas that will inevitably be stuck with the tab.
In an odd sort of way, President Trump may have performed a useful service where this issue is concerned. In condemning countries whose emigrants to the United States he obviously sees as unproductive and uneducated drags on the nation’s resources, he has invited what could be a useful discussion about American communities that could be characterized in the same manner.
(Author’s Note: This is the first of at least two and probably three pieces I’m writing on the impact on local governments of Georgia’s transition from a traditional sales-and-property tax system of taxing motor vehicles to a complicated new “title ad valorem tax” system. This is an overview and stage-setter; deeper dives into regional and county-level impacts will follow.)
Think of this as a political cold case, an opportunity to revisit the scene of an old legislative crime five years after the fact and assess the violence with fresh eyes. Our case today is a bill passed by the Georgia General Assembly in 2012. Known officially as House Bill 386, this measure was widely ballyhooed as “tax reform.” This alone should have been evidence enough that the General Assembly was up to no good. Further evidence lies in the timing. The 56-page bill was shared with members of a specially-appointed House-Senate committee on taxation a scant 10 days before the 2012 session was scheduled to end. When then-House Minority Leader (and current Democratic gubernatorial candidate) Stacey Abrams had the temerity to ask about fiscal models that had been used to gauge the financial impact of HB 386’s provisions, then-House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Mickey Channell “responded curtly,” according to one report, that “we don’t have that available right now.”
Not to worry. The very next day HB 386 was approved overwhelmingly by the full House of Representatives (only nine members, all Democrats, mustered the nerve to vote against it; Abrams wasn’t one of them) and immediately transmitted to the Senate, which passed it unanimously two days later. Less than a hundred hours after it rolled off the legislative printing press, this 2,000-line bill was out of the General Assembly and on its way to Governor Nathan Deal, who called it “good news” and said: “It means our state is more competitive and is a state where we can grow jobs.”
Revisiting HB 386 five years later is a little like going back to the scene of a massacre and discovering that nobody bothered to remove all the bodies, let alone mop up the blood. The joint House-Senate taxation committee was supposed to be following up on the work of a 2010 Special Council on Tax Reform and Fairness for Georgians. Created by state law, the Council was headed by former Atlanta Olympics czar A.D. Frazier and made up of Frazier and nine other well-respected business leaders and actual economists. This group produced a thoughtful 34-page report that proposed pretty reasonable changes to the full range of taxes imposed by the state of Georgia.
Those recommendations were, naturally, largely ignored. Instead, the leaders of the joint House-Senate tax committee ginned up a grab-bag of goodies for a lot of the usual suspects, including agricultural equipment retailers and Delta Air Lines. But all that didn’t get much media attention, thanks to what one report described as the “wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am” means by which the legislation was rammed through the General Assembly. Instead, the bill’s legislative champions focused on the lead section of the bill, which overhauled the way motor vehicles are taxed in Georgia, and so did the press.
For now, so will we. To cut to the chase, this section of the bill alone amounted to a massive raid on local government treasuries by state government. Working with Georgia Department of Revenue data detailed in a recent report by Georgia State University’s Fiscal Research Center, it’s now clear that this one provision of HB 386 shifted something on the order a billion dollars in motor vehicle taxes from Georgia’s cities, counties and school systems to the state treasury between 2014 and 2016 alone. Once 2017 numbers are in, that cumulative total will almost certainly rise even further.
Here’s how it worked. Before HB 386, Georgians paid two types of taxes on their motor vehicles – a sales tax at the time of purchase and then an ad valorem (or property) tax every year thereafter. These two taxes were important sources of revenue for Georgia’s state and local governments. The sales tax, paid at the time of purchase, was divided between the state and local governments; the state got its 4 percent and the counties got whatever their local sales tax was set at – generally between 2 and 4 percent. In subsequent years, the counties collected the ad valorem taxes and divided the proceeds three ways amongst themselves and local municipal governments and school systems. As motor vehicles aged, these ad valorem taxes declined.
It was a tried and true system, but former House Speaker Glenn Richardson (R-Douglasville) had begun to rail some years before about the fact that these ad valorem taxes came due in the month in which the motor vehicle owner was born. He complained bitterly that this amounted to a “birthday tax” on hapless Georgians and set out to do away with it. Richardson himself would leave office in disgrace a year or so afterward, but killing the birthday tax for some reason remained a cause celebre among House Republicans and became a key rallying cry in support of HB 386.
In place of the old sales-and-property tax system and its evil birthday tax, they unveiled what they called the Title Ad Valorem Tax. Now known as TAVT, this is a convoluted Frankenstein monster of a system that appears (fortunately for the rest of America) to be unique to the Great State of Georgia. (I’ve Googled it and called everybody I can think of to call, and I can’t find anybody who’s aware of anything like it anywhere else in the country.)
Basically, it functions like a sales tax that is paid at the time of purchase. When it first went into effect, the new TAVT tax was set at 6.5 percent of the cost of the vehicle and the proceeds were split between the state and the county; initially, under HB 386, the state got 57 percent of that 6.5 percent and the local county got the other 43 percent. Since that first year the rate has increased, first to 6.75 percent and now to 7 percent (where it will likely stay) and the split (again, as provided for in the legislation) has been shifting in favor of the local governments. As of 2016, that 7 percent tax was being split 53.5 percent-to-46.5 percent in favor of the state. Over time, the law calls for the split to shift incrementally in favor of the local governments.
That was one of two major elements to the HB 386 overhaul of the way the state taxes motor vehicles. The other was that the state began taxing two new categories of motor vehicles: casual sales between individuals (this was one of the few Special Council recommendations that survived the legislative shredder), and motor vehicles that are moved into the state. Bottom line, the TAVT section of HB 386 did away with annual ad valorem taxes, sought to replace that lost revenue with the new “title” taxes on casual sales and motor vehicles moved in from out of state, and changed the way the overall pie was carved up.
By my arithmetic, that trade-off has so far turned out to be about a wash – maybe even a little bit of an overall money-loser. Under the new TAVT, actual total motor vehicle revenue for the state and local government combined has grown from $1.67 billion in 2012 to $2.01 billion in 2016. If the old system had remained in place and the state and local tax streams had continued to increase at their respective 2010-2012 growth rates, total revenues for 2016 would have hit $2.05 billion.
While much of the debate that surrounded HB 386 has been lost in the political fog that usually envelops the State Capitol, various legislators, lobbyists and policy wonks tell me there was a lot of discussion about the need to “keep local governments whole” – at least over the long haul. At that, HB 386 has so far failed miserably.
The table below (using DOR data drawn from the GSU Fiscal Research Center report) compares actual motor vehicle revenues collected by the state and local governments with (for the years 2014 through 2016) what they would have collected if their revenues had been allowed to continue to grow at their 2010-2012 growth rates, which averaged 3.7 percent per year for state government and 5.9 percent per year for local governments. (2013 was omitted from the Fiscal Research Center report because it was a transition year.)
State Government Actuals for all years shown
Local Government Actuals for all years shown
State Government motor vehicle revenue actuals for 2010-2012 and projections for 2012-2014 @ 2010-2012 growth rate
Local Government motor vehicle revenue actuals for 2010-2012 and projections for 2012-2014 @ 2010-2012 growth rate
The two left-hand columns show actual state and local government motor vehicle revenue totals for the years shown, as reported in the GSU Fiscal Research Center report. The two right-hand columns repeat the actual data for 2010 through 2012 and show what the state and local motor vehicle revenues would have been if the old sales-and-property tax system had been left in place and state and local recent growth rates had continued.
Bottom line, the state government’s actual revenues for the period 2014-2016 are just over a billion dollars higher than they would have under the old system and at the old growth rate, while local governments are down a cumulative $876 million.
In a follow-up post soon, I’ll take a deeper dive into how TAVT affected counties in various parts of the state. Spoiler alert: Rural counties got screwed the worst.
Have a question or suggestion for TIGC? Email Charlie Hayslett at chayslett.gmail.com