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Posts tagged ‘Rural Georgia’

Kemp’s “rural strike team” should be a step in the right direction. We’ll see.

First, props where they’re deserved.  Georgia Governor Brian Kemp actually took a step in the right direction Monday when he told the AJC he’s creating a “rural strike team” to try to stimulate economic development in the state’s dying hinterlands.  He reportedly plans to unveil the details in Swainsboro on Thursday.

Only time will tell whether this is anything more than eyewash and window dressing, but there were a couple of promising hints in the AJC’s story.  One was that he’s bringing together “a half-dozen state departments and higher education agencies” to drive the effort.  That implies a more strategic approach and focus than I’ve seen so far, and one that’s long overdue.  Still, the strike force will have its work cut out for it.

The state of Georgia is quite literally in the process of tearing itself apart along rural and urban lines, and especially between Metro Atlanta and just about everything else from Macon south.  These are not slow-moving trends.  No matter how you come at it – economically, educationally, health-wise, politically – you can pretty much watch the division in real-time.

Take education as an example.  In 1970, according to Census Bureau data, there were fewer than a quarter of a million college graduates in the entire state of Georgia, and slightly more than half of them lived outside Trouble in God’s Country’s 12-county Metro Atlanta region.  Today, the state is home to nearly two million college graduates and 63 percent of them live in Metro Atlanta.

That disparity is only going to grow.  Up until 2011, the 147 counties outside Metro Atlanta sent more freshmen to University System of Georgia (USG) institutions than the 12 Metro Atlanta counties, which is probably what you’d expect.  But in 2011 Metro Atlanta overtook the rest of the state and ever since then it’s been sending significantly more freshmen to USG colleges and universities than the rest of the state combined (see graph at right).

At the state’s two flagship universities, the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech, the gulf is bigger yet.  At Georgia Tech, 75.5 percent of the Fall 2018 in-state freshmen came from Metro Atlanta; at UGA, just over 63 percent of the in-state freshmen came from Metro Atlanta.  By my count, 71 counties, all rural, didn’t send a single high school graduate to Tech in the fall of 2018; at UGA, the same was true of 22 counties.

These differences matter.  Not only do they fuel Metro Atlanta’s outsized economic growth, they drive widening disparities in taxes paid and social services consumed.  With just under half the state’s population, Metro Atlanta in 2016 coughed up nearly two-thirds of the state’s federal taxes while consuming, as examples, about 37 percent of the state’s Medicaid services and about 41 percent of its food stamp benefits.

You can do the math on the other side of that equation.  Oh, okay, I’ll help: the 99 counties that constitute Trouble in God’s Country’s Middle and South Georgia regions don’t even come close to covering their own Medicaid and food stamp costs, let alone anything else.  After a while these kinds of numbers get to be politically untenable.

Some years back, I presented a very early version of my Trouble in God’s Country research to a group made up primarily of legislators.  One of those was House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Mickey Channell, who has since passed away.  “What do you do about it?” he asked.  I didn’t know then and still don’t, at least not entirely.  But I’ve since given it a lot of thought and would offer the following as a running start at an answer:

  • First, the multi-agency approach suggested by Kemp is the right idea — and critical. The state of Georgia arguably has one of the strongest and most sophisticated economic development infrastructures in the nation, but my sense is that its work has been largely siloed and not well integrated with other departments and agencies of state government.  The state’s urban-rural divide and the deterioration in much of rural Georgia constitutes a truly strategic problem.  It’s not an exaggeration to call it an all-hands-on-deck crisis.  In addition to the departments of Economic Development and Community Affairs, the team will have to include high-level engagement from throughout the state’s education bureaucracies and, I’d argue, public health and human services.
  • Start with a realistic evaluation of the state’s various rural areas and recognize that some are more viable than others. Some politicians like to say they want to run government like a business.  In business, if you’re losing money year after year, sooner or later you call it quits.  Under that theory, I can take the governor to 50 or so counties where he ought to turn out the lights and call it a day.  We can’t do that, of course, but it ought to be possible to invest discretionary tax dollars and other public resources in areas that at least have a fighting chance of generating a return, in terms of new growth and economic prosperity.  In other words, resist the normal political temptation to attack the worst problems first; instead, identify the regions that still have a pulse and see if they can be saved.
  • Shore up the regional hub cities first. It’s not just Georgia’s purely rural areas that are in serious decline; a lot of the major regional cities – Macon, Columbus, Augusta, etc. – are suffering various types of distress, and they are vital to rural areas around them.  As a practical matter, it may be too late to do much good for Albany and the rural counties between it and the Alabama line; that entire region of the state is bleeding population and shrinking economically to a degree that may put it beyond near-term salvation.  Figuring out how to strengthen other major hubs in ways that will enable them to better support their rural neighbors should be pretty close to the top of the to-do list for Kemp’s strike force.
  • Challenge the rural areas to compete for the state’s attention and dollars. Hopefully, one of the initiatives that will come out of Kemp’s effort will be a process by which multi-county regions or areas of the state can apply to the state for funding and technical support.  It shouldn’t be entirely on Kemp’s strike force to show up in Enigma, Ga., and say, “We’re from state government and we’re here to help you.”  Rural areas should be required to come forward with a rational vision, demonstrate that they have the leadership capacity to drive a major effort, and put serious skin in the game.  There should be milestones in that process and a credible system for evaluating progress.
  • Bite the political bullet and implement Medicaid Expansion. I should have listed this first but figured Republicans would stop reading right then and there.  Refusing to take advantage of Medicaid Expansion was the major failure of Nathan Deal’s administration and Kemp shows little inclination to do any better.  His attempt at a “waiver” approach (an all but transparent effort to deny Barack Obama any credit for the program) apparently can’t even pass muster in Donald Trump’s Washington.  Meanwhile, rural hospitals continue to close and people continue to die, prematurely and unnecessarily.  Even if Deal, Kemp & Co. are blind to the health benefits of Medicaid Expansion, you’d think they’d see the economic benefits of pumping billions of dollars into rural Georgia.  Maybe all things Obamacare still constitute a third rail of politics for Georgia Republicans, but my hunch is that the radioactivity levels tied to Medicaid Expansion have diminished to a point that it could be a political winner for Kemp – a Nixon-to-China sort of moment.

Again, I don’t know whether Kemp’s ”rural strike force” will prove to be anything more than eyewash and window dressing, but it’s encouraging that he’s taking a stab at the problem.  Hope springs eternal.

(c) Trouble in God’s Country 2019

 

Coming to Rural Georgia from Outer Space: Broadband Internet Service

I’ve been arguing pretty much since the rural broadband craze started that we’d be nuts to plow probably at least a billion tax dollars — most of it from Metro Atlanta — into running fiber to Georgia’s most sparsely populated counties.

Give the private sector and advancing technology time, I’ve felt, and we’ll probably get a better solution long before the state could plow up all the red clay in rural Georgia and put fiber in the ground.

Satellite-based internet has been around for years, although one of the legitimate raps on its potential as a consumer solution has been speed: the satellites are so far above the Earth that it takes a while for the signal to bounce back and forth.

Well, now comes SpaceX with the launch of 60 low-orbit satellites designed to solve that problem: https://nyti.ms/2M8E4nH

Per the New York Times’s story, these new satellites will orbit the planet at a much lower altitude than the current 22,000 miles: “The Starlink satellites will orbit much lower — between 210 and 710 miles above the surface. That reduces the lagginess, or latency. SpaceX has said performance should be comparable to ground-based cable and optical fiber networks that carry most internet traffic today. Starlink would provide high-speed internet to parts of the world that currently are largely cut off from the modern digital world.”

The Times’s story indicates it’ll take nearly 2,000 of these low-orbit satellites to blanket the planet, but my hunch is SpaceX will get that done long before the State of Georgia could hardwire rural Georgia — and we won’t have to pay for it.

Trump says America is ‘FULL.’ Tell that to Rural Georgia.

(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.

Trump Country Full

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.
But …
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.

SW GA Births & Deaths 1994-2017.jpg
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.)

© Trouble in God’s Country 2019

Georgia blacks make strong gains in premature death rates; rural white females losing ground

As we’ve noted in various previous posts, Georgia’s premature death rate (known formally as Years of Potential Life Lost before age 75, or YPLL 75) has been improving fairly steadily over the 20 years that the state’s Department of Public Health (DPH) has been compiling pertinent data.[1]  Between 1994 and 2013, the state’s YPLL 75 rate improved from 9,195.6 to 7,104.7, a gain of 19.4 percent.  The national median, as reported the Robert W. Johnson Foundation in its latest County Health Rankings, was 7,681, so Georgia is doing a little better than the nation as a whole.

But, as we’ve noted in past posts, Georgia’s improvement has been far from even; we’ve focused in particular on regional differences and the dramatic gap in YPLL 75 performance between Metro Atlanta and the rest of the state.  Until now, however, we haven’t looked at racial or gender comparisons, and that produces a couple of interesting headlines.  One is that the vast majority of gains in premature death rates between 1994 and 2013 have been made in the black population.  The other is that rural white females are losing ground.  Read more

Is Rural Georgia Dying? Literally?

A basic premise of Trouble in God’s Country is that rural Georgia is dying.  Truth is, I’ve meant that figuratively rather than literally – a reference to local economies gutted by globalization and other factors, failing schools and small hospitals in danger of closing, among other things.

Recently, however, I read an article that made passing reference to the growing number of rural counties across the country where deaths outnumber births.  I wondered if that might be the case in Georgia.

A quick dive back into the Georgia Department of Public Health’s (DPH) OASIS system produced some pretty startling results. Read more

AJC: Rural hospitals bailing on babies

The AJC is up today with an excellent and hugely important story by Lynne Anderson about the state’s rural hospitals bailing out of baby business.  This is the bow wave in the slow-motion disaster that is rural healthcare in Georgia in the 21st century.

One of several money grafs:

Read more