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New “Distressed Community” ratings reinforce view that Georgia’s haves and have-nots split along the gnat line

A couple of years ago I stumbled across a Washington, D.C., think tank that calls itself the Economic Innovation Group. EIG’s stated mission is “to advance solutions that empower entrepreneurs and investors to forge a more dynamic economy throughout America,” and the smart folks who work there do an awful lot of terrific research that has helped bring much of Trouble in God’s Country’s work into sharper relief.

One of its most impressive products is what it calls the Distressed Communities Index, or DCI. The DCI is the product of a calculation cooked up by EIG that blends together seven economic data points mined from U.S. Census Bureau data: 1.) the percent of the adult population without a high school diploma; 2.) the housing vacancy rate; 3.) the percentage of prime-age adults not currently in work; 4.) the percentage of the population living below the poverty line; 5,) median household income as a percentage of the state’s median household income; 6.) percent change in the number of local jobs, and 7.) percent change in the number of business establishments.

EIG produces its DCIs at county and zip code levels, and it measures distress on a scale that it describes as from “approaching zero” to 100.0. “Approaching zero” is good; 100.0 is bad. I got my first look at EIG’s 2018 DCI report and did a couple of posts about it (including here and here). Now they’re back with a 2020 edition based on Census Bureau data from the period 2014 through 2018, and I’ve spent the past several days rolling around in the numbers.

I’m not sure there are any huge headlines, but there are more than a few middle-sized and small ones.

Probably the first one to mention is that Oconee County — as it did in the 2018 report — still has the best Distressed Community Index in Georgia. This won’t be a surprise to anybody who follows this sort of thing. Oconee County, located next door to Athens-Clarke County and about an hour from Metro Atlanta, has for several years now been ranked by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) as having the strongest economy in the state.

The more interesting Oconee County factoid is that its DCI improved significantly between 2018 to 2020 — from .5 to .2 — and that improvement appears to have moved it into the top 10 in the national rankings. While EIG doesn’t include national rankings in its dataset, it is possible to sort all 3,133 U.S. counties by their DCI score and then assign rankings based on that sort. That exercise pushes Oconee County into a tie for fifth place with Douglas County, Colorado, and Sarpy County, Nebraska.

(For those of you who are wondering, the top four counties in EIG’s list are Lincoln County, S.D.; Broomfield County, Colo.; Loudon County, Va.; and Hamilton County, Ind.)

The second medium-sized headline out of the EIG data is that it demonstrates once again the expanse of the gap between Georgia’s geographic haves and have-nots. At the bottom of EIG’s 2018 DCI pile is Wheeler County, which earned a Distressed Community Index of 99.9, and that put it pretty close to the bottom of the national pile as well. It tied with two South Texas counties for 3,129th place out of a total of 3,133 counties.

The only state to have a wider gap between its highest- and lowest-rated counties was Virginia. The aforementioned Loudon County, Va.,– part of the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Area — posted a DCI of 0.1 to tie for second place while, across the state, Buchanan County, Va., scored a perfect 100.0 and tied with its adjoining Appalachian neighbor, McDowell County, W.Va., for last place.

Here in Georgia, Oconee and Wheeler counties are about 150 miles and three hours apart, connected on a north-south line by U.S. 441. But that time and distance only begins to hint at the socioeconomic chasm between the two counties, as this table detailing the metrics that go into EIG’s DCI shows. Wheeler County’s problems are, across the board, obviously orders of magnitude worse than Oconee County’s.

While EIG does not include formal national rankings in its data, it does slice the 3,133 counties into national quintiles — and here, at least, there’s a little good news for Georgia. This time around, Georgia has significantly more counties in the top national quintile and fewer in the bottom quintile than it did in the 2018 report. Put another way, Georgia’s overall DCI profile has arguably improved, at least a little bit.

Predictably, though, the regional distribution of those counties is anything but even. Twenty-five Georgia counties made it into the top national quintile, and 17 of those are located north of the gnat line; three are on the coast, and four are in Middle Georgia. South Georgia’s only placement in the top quintile is Lee County, the affluent white flight county just north of Albany and Dougherty County, and its index score and ranking actually tumbled significantly between the 2018 and 2020 reports. In 2018, it had the ninth-best DCI in the state; in the most recent report, it had fallen to 23rd. Its TIGC-calculated national ranking fell from 180th in 2018 to 598th in 2020, near the bottom of the first quintile.

In contrast, the lowest-ranking county in TIGC’s Metro Atlanta region improved both its DCI and its ranking. Clayton County, the only Metro Atlanta county in the fourth quintile, improved its DCI from 74.3 to 68.6 and its statewide rank from 79th to 75th. Its national ranking, according to TIGC’s unofficial calculations, improved from 2,322nd in 2018 to 2,150th in the 2020 report.

Throughout my work on Trouble in God’s Country, I’ve waffled on the question of how best to characterize the divide between Georgia’s geographic haves and have-nots: Urban vs. Rural, Metro Atlanta vs. Everybody Else, North vs. South. In recent months, I’ve gravitated to the North vs. South view — with the understanding that North includes (and is driven by) Metro Atlanta and that South is everything from about the gnat line south.

The new EIG data, mapped below, reinforces that view. The key takeaway from this map isn’t that the best-scoring counties are concentrated in and around Metro Atlanta — that’s no surprise. It’s that the largest group of the middle-range counties — those shown in the lighter shades of blue — surround the Metro Atlanta region, reflecting region’s expanding economic influence.

The Georgia coast can claim a handful of counties with decent DCI ratings, and several others are scattered across rural Georgia. But with those few exceptions, the farther you get from Metro Atlanta, the darker the shades of blue — and the worse the DCI scores — become.

The EIG data and its DCI scores are in line with other assessments that make it clear that Georgia’s economic strength is concentrating more and more from roughly the gnat line north — as is its population growth and, therefore, its political power. This will ultimately — and sooner rather than later — undo a rough balance of political and economic power that has prevailed in the state for more than a century. It will also complicate the process of addressing the challenges in the state’s rural areas south of the gnat line.


Following is a complete list of Georgia counties with their EIG DCI ratings and ranks, and the national quintile they fall into.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


County Health Rankings & Roadmaps

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

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


County Health Rankings & Roadmaps

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

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


© Trouble in God’s Country 2019

Forsyth County moves to the top of the 2015 TIGC Power Ratings

With the publication Wednesday of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s 2015 County Health Rankings, we can indeed report that, as expected, Forsyth County has slipped past perennial leader Oconee County and claimed 1st place in the 2015 Trouble in God’s Country Power Ratings. Read more

A new Power Ratings champ?

Every year during the old Partner Up! for Public Health campaign, we built a major part of the annual publicity effort around what we called Power Ratings that paired county health rankings produced by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with county economic rankings generated each year by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA).

Throughout the 2010-through-2014 period for which we compiled rankings, Oconee County reigned supreme.  For each of those five years, it was No. 1 in DCA’s economic rankings,[1] which are generated by a formula that incorporates local unemployment and poverty rates along with local per capita income.   And, it ranked either 2nd or 3rd in RWJ’s annual health outcomes rankings, which are based on a formula that includes premature death rates, the percent of the population reporting being in poor or fair health, number of days worked missed for reasons of physical or mental health, and low birthweight. Read more

Chicken and the Egg

In the four years we’ve been talking about the relationship between health and economic vitality at a community level, the one question we’ve gotten more than any other is the chicken-and-egg question.  Which comes first?  Which is the driver?  Does health make wealth?  Or vice versa?

My answer is that the relationship between health and economic productivity is pretty clear first and foremost at a personal level.  We all know we’re more productive when we’re in good health than when we’re down with a cold or the flu, let alone something more serious.  We also know that when we’re sick, we inevitably have to divert some of our income to medical care.

The same thing plays out at a community level.  Recently we updated an analysis of the Georgia counties that came in at the top and bottom of our 2013 Partner Up! for Public Health Power Rankings – Oconee County at the top and side-by-side South Georgia neighbors Crisp and Wilcox counties tied for last.

Read more