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Posts tagged ‘Rural Georgia’

Stacey Abrams does an interview with TIGC. It was pretty long. Here’s Chapter One.

A couple of months ago, I began tracking the approach our gubernatorial candidates – incumbent Republican Brian Kemp and Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams – were taking toward rural Georgia and its mounting problems.  I started doing this after reading that Abrams had launched her campaign in Cuthbert, Ga., a tiny town near the Alabama line in southwest Georgia.  My first reaction was that Abrams had somehow gotten lost, but it turns out she did this on purpose.

After that, I scoured the Kemp and Abrams campaign websites for evidence of their approach to rural Georgia and eventually reached out to the Abrams campaign with two requests.  One was to talk with the campaign team members helping to craft her rural policies.  The other was to interview Abrams herself.  Over a period of a few weeks, I had a couple of conversations about rural issues with campaign staff members and volunteers. 

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams speaks outside of closed hospital in Cuthbert, Georgia, Monday, March 14, 2022.

Then last Friday I interviewed Abrams herself, and one thing became quickly apparent: the person crafting Stacey Abrams’s rural policies was Stacey Abrams herself. 

The interview ran just under less than an hour and yielded more material than I could possibly cram into a single post.  In the course of the interview, we covered a range of topics in some depth – education, healthcare, economic development, and the complicated politics facing any Democrat trying to harvest votes in bright red rural Georgia these days.  Over the next few days, I plan to post several posts reporting on Abrams’s views on these subjects.

To open the interview, I threw her a softball.  Talk to me, I said, about how you view the complicated set of problems facing rural Georgia, and about how you would tackle them.  Does state government have the tactical tools it needs to help rural Georgia?  Or do we need a new strategic approach? 

“For me, the goal in rural Georgia is not to become Atlanta, but it is to be able to be self-sustaining and successful within the construct of being small and not having your neighbors live right on top of you.  It is the ability to have the amenities of rural with the modernity of time… “

–stacey abrams

I hereby yield the floor to Ms. Abrams.  Her answers and comments, lightly edited for length, follow.

“We have the tools,” she said, “but they’re jumbled, they are often misused, and they rarely target with the precision necessary to address the challenge…. Rural economic decline is real.  Population decline is real.  There has been insufficient funding of education.  There is a very marked lack of quality healthcare.  There is crumbling and sometimes non-existent infrastructure.  And there has been a lack of economic opportunity that has really focused more on sort of big-game hunting to bring in solutions for targeted counties. 

“But the systemic and I would say sustainable approach has been missing and what is more concerning to me is that the solutions are often premised on leveraging the poverty as opposed to solving the poverty. Meaning, that Georgia often touts economic development coming to the state by saying you don’t have to pay fair wages, that it is the low-income, low-wealth nature of our state that is used as a selling point. Which then means that those who bring jobs do not bring those kinds of jobs that could lift economic capacity, (that) could address those economic challenges…

“For me, the goal in rural Georgia is not to become Atlanta, but it is to be able to be self-sustaining and successful within the construct of being small and not having your neighbors live right on top of you.  It is the ability to have the amenities of rural with the modernity of time, and that’s what’s missing too often in a rural community.  That billions of dollars in tax revenue have been spent on essentially bringing in out-of-state corporations who come to Georgia not simply to create jobs but to create jobs that are not going to lift all of our communities, and that has a concomitant effect of also depressing those who stay and driving out those who might have stayed.

“And so, when I think about how we tackle the challenge of rural Georgia, it is to first acknowledge the repeated failures of recent administrations that have overseen a decline in real wages, a decline in economic capacity, a decline in education, a decline in healthcare, a decline in infrastructure, a decline across the board.  And to not cherry pick the winners.  

“My mission is to focus on reinvestment but also to think about placemaking.  How do we ensure that the nature of our small towns and rural communities are celebrated and that that celebration actually has economic effects? How do we revitalize? And then how do we expand? Because there are some places that have never seen opportunity.  When you go into those communities whether you’re talking about parts of Chattooga County or parts of Randolph County, where the rumor of opportunity has been about in the land for years, but never actually manifested. That’s the kind of work that I want to do (and) why my focus on rural communities is so strong.”

Here I interrupted Abrams and asked her a couple of questions.  One was whether she was suggesting it was wrong to recruit companies like Rivian and Hyundai, both of which have chosen sites in Georgia under Kemp’s watch?  Or Kia, which was recruited to west Georgia under Governor Sonny Perdue more than 15 years ago?

“Well let’s start with that.  No, it’s not a mistake to bring in jobs.  The challenge is, which jobs are you bringing in?  And what are you doing to ensure that those jobs lead to long-term economic lift for everyone?  My challenge and my critique is that bringing in those jobs is not the end of the story. It is part of the story but too often it becomes the whole of the story — that because you can tout some massive corporation coming in that will absolutely have economic benefit, then you are absolved of responsibility for all of the places that still have nothing. 

“And you get a really great headline and real-world, real-time improvement for some. But the long-term impact on others is that nothing happens. That’s deeply problematic or worse than nothing happening. Things actually continue to deteriorate. So, great for Troup County; that is fantastic. And I would never begrudge the success.  But if you’re in Early County, what happened in Troup County is not changing your outcome, and, in fact, it is now, once again, distracting from the very real needs that you have.”

The other question I asked Abrams when I interrupted her was for more of a “nuts-and-bolts” focus on how she would act on her vision for rural Georgia – and how she would pay for it.  Following are two chunks of her response, and we’ll expand on these in the next post.

Chunk One: “So here are the nuts-and-bolts… One is investment.  How do we make investment more effective and efficient? And what are those investment needs?  The major investment needs in Georgia for rural communities are education, Infrastructure, and small business.”

Chunk Two focused on financing those investments, and there’s a lot more to come here.  Basically, Abrams contends that – thanks in part to a huge influx in federal funding and a healthy state budget surplus – Georgia is now in a position to make some unprecedented investments in the present and the future.  She also identifies this as a “fundamental philosophical difference” between her and Kemp.

“Here’s the analogy I use,” she says.  “We’ve got a house (whose) roof has been leaking for years and every time there’s a hard rain, the basement floods.  And so we’re used to going up on the roof, patching the roof, and we go bail out the basement.  We finally have the money to replace the roof and fix the plumbing.  That’s what I want us to do, because if you replace the roof and fix the plumbing, it doesn’t mean the new storms won’t come, but when they come, we’re actually focused on other challenges. We’re not focused on, do we have to find more buckets for the roof?  We’ve actually solved that problem.  Using the surplus to invest in the next twenty years of Georgia opportunity is the smartest way to use this money because it does not require that we borrow from the future to solve the present.  It tells us if we invest in the present, we’re actually better situated for the future.”

We’ll flesh out these chunks – and other topics – in the next post. Watch this space.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022

Stacey Abrams pursues a risky campaign strategy

It’s increasingly clear that Stacey Abrams is pursuing a high-risk – dare I say foolhardy? – strategy in her quest for the office of Georgia governor. 

She’s actually asking voters to think.

What I haven’t been able to decide is whether this was her plan all along?  Or if she backed herself into a corner with her “inelegant” (as she later put it) statement that Georgia is “the worst state” in which to live?

Abrams, the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nominee, was complaining at an event in May about incumbent Republican Governor Brian Kemp’s incessant invocation of an economic development trade publication’s ranking of Georgia as “the top state for doing business” when she flipped that on its head and offered up the “worst state in the country to live” comment.

The statement was widely panned by Kemp and some in the media as a gaffe.  In a Facebook thread, one politically savvy friend bluntly criticized it as “a dumb, unforced error.”  Another, the estimable Bill Cotterell, long ago UPI’s man at the Georgia State Capitol and now a semi-retired political columnist for The Tallahassee Democrat, offered a more complete explanation.  “My kid might be ugly,” he said, “but you’re not going to win my vote by proving it to me.“

Probably not, but Abrams seems determined to give it her best shot – and for what it’s worth, she’s no stranger to novel political strategies.  When she first took on Kemp four years ago, she came closer to winning than any Democrat in the current millennium by running as an unapologetic progressive.  Four years earlier, Jason Carter and Michelle Nunn, progeny of the state’s two leading Democratic families, got clobbered by running GOP lite campaigns for governor and U.S. Senate.

The Kemp camp, meanwhile, has been positively and predictably gleeful in its reactions – but in the process, it may have overreached.  Kemp and his minions delighted in whacking Abrams about the head and shoulders with press statements and tweets. “Stacey Abrams may think differently,” Kemp harrumphed on Twitter, “but I believe Georgia is the best state to live, work, and raise a family.” To have done less would have been political malpractice, a felony in Georgia.

But then they took it a step further and focused their first ad of the campaign on the issue.  The 30-second spot features Abrams making her “inelegant” statement followed by a handful of headlines favorable to Kemp, after which a narrator declares that Kemp has “kept Georgia the best place to live.”

Really?   

Here, we should pause to recognize the difference in campaign strategies.  If Abrams is asking voters to think, Kemp is asking them not to; instead, he wants them to feel

For what it’s worth, his is the more traditional and time-tested approach.  Voters arguably vote their hearts far more than their heads, and appealing to their sense of pride (“best place to live”) no doubt works better in that regard than insulting them (“worst place to live”).

But Kemp’s “best place to live” claim is such an overreach that it merits a TIGC fact-check, and we give it a half-dozen Pinocchios and a pair of flaming tighty-whities.  First, the ad’s messaging logic (for lack of a better word) merits scrutiny (not to mention a belly laugh).  After spotlighting Abrams’s “worst state” comment, the ad features a montage of positive business headlines that are then used as a springboard to the “best place to live” claim.

A strong local economy is obviously critical to a community’s overall viability, but economic development doesn’t automatically lead to quality-of-life improvements and the two don’t always go hand in hand. Further, it seems worth noting that the much-vaunted business ranking from Area Development magazine focuses exclusively on business considerations and does not, as nearly as TIGC has been able to discern, factor in quality-of-life metrics.

Indeed, at least one of the key categories Area Development uses to measure and compare the 50 states seems to be at odds with improving the economic livelihood of individual Georgia citizens. More than 30 years ago, the General Assembly created a job tax credit program that measured the economic standing of Georgia’s counties by three key metrics — unemployment, poverty, and per capita income. Counties that scored poorly by those measures would be targeted with generous tax credits to encourage businesses to set up shop and create jobs in them.

Through the 1980s, ’90s, and early 2000s, Georgia made remarkable progress on arguably the most important of those three — per capita income (as TIGC has documented in previous posts, here, here, and here). Between 1980 and the end of the century, the state’s average PCI rose from 84.5 percent of the national average to 95 percent, and our rank among the 50 states climbed from 38th to 24th.

In the first decade of the current century, Georgia’s PCI performance fell back to 1980 levels; as of 2010, our average PCI was 85.6 percent of the national average and we ranked 40th among the 50 states. That reversal of fortune coincided with the transition of political power at the State Capitol from Democrat to Republican. While it’s difficult to determine cause and effect, the state’s first GOP governor in modern times, Sonny Perdue, presided during his eight years in office over a 15-place drop in the national rankings. Only one state suffered a bigger drop during that same period; Delaware fell 16 places.

Since then, the state’s PCI performance has been relatively static, bobbing up and down slightly first under Governor Nathan Deal and now under Kemp. As of the end of 2020, Kemp’s second year in office, the state’s average PCI was up to 87 percent of the national average but our rank remained 40th among the 50 states.

In Area Development’s view, that’s apparently not a bad thing. Georgia, for instance, tied with Texas for the No. 1 spot in a category called “Competitive Labor Market,” about which the magazine said, in part: “Companies choosing locations in Georgia and Texas appreciate the fact that they both have wages below the average in more than half of all other states … “

That wasn’t true when the Republicans came to power, but it certainly is now — with the ironic consequence that Georgia’s claim to being the No. 1 state for business is predicated in part on the fact that its citizens earn less on average than their counterparts in 39 other states.

Area Development, however, isn’t the only media outlet that ranks states for their overall business environment. CNBC has been doing the same thing since 2007, and Georgia generally fares well in its rankings as well; the state finished in CNBC’s Top 10 every year except 2008 and claimed 1st place in 2014.

CNBC’s methodology has evolved over time, however, and recently it added a category it calls “Life, Health & Inclusion.” Here, the news for Georgia is not so good.

CNBC even published an online sidebar under the headline “These 10 states are America’s worst places to live in 2021.” In this “Life, Health & Inclusion” category, Georgia got an “F” and finished 6th — that is, as the 6th worst place to live in America. Behind Alabama.

Let me repeat that: Behind Alabama.

The challenge for Abrams is in communicating this kind of information in ways that rile voters up without turning them off. If Kemp is trying to make voters feel good about Georgia as a place to live, Abrams should be trying to make them mad. So far, I’m not sure she’s accomplishing that. Most of her critiques (that I’ve seen) have focused on the state as a whole.

She’s up on social media, for example, with an ad that spotlights 82 Georgia counties that don’t have any OB/GYNs and another (below right) that lists the state’s poor ranking in a number of health-related categories. Whether that kind of messaging cuts through remains to be seen. I don’t have the benefit of any polling data, but I’m skeptical that statewide numbers resonate at local levels.

Take, for example, Brantley County. Located in deep southeast Georgia, Brantley County ranks near the bottom of every national economic, educational, and health analysis I’ve conducted. Nationally, it ranks in the bottom one percent of U.S. counties for per capita income, the bottom five percent for educational attainment, and the bottom 13 percent for premature death — and it’s actually doing better than a fair number of its neighboring rural Georgia counties.

But the thing that distinguishes Brantley County is that it’s the most Republican county in the entire state. In the 2016 presidential election, Brantley County voters gave Donald Trump 88 percent of their vote. In the governor’s race two years later, they went for Kemp by an even bigger margin — 91.3 percent to 8.1 percent for Abrams. In the 2020 presidential race, they sided 10-to-1 with Trump: 90.3 percent for the incumbent Republican to 9.0 percent for Joe Biden.

If voters anywhere ought to be frustrated with their economic, education, and health situations, you’d think it would be the folks in Brantley County — especially since they’ve been losing ground in recent years. In 2002, the last year a Democrat occupied the governor’s office, its average PCI was 63.3 percent of the national average; in 2020, the latest year for which data is available, Brantley’s average PCI was down to 50.4 percent of the national average.

Kemp, of course, is at no risk of losing Brantley County, but if Abrams succeeds at getting even a small fraction of voters there and in other beleaguered blood-red counties to think about something other than the party label, it just might make a difference.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022

TIGC takes an early look at the Georgia GOP’s gubernatorial death cage match

Ordinarily the Georgia General Assembly is a shoo-in for top honors in the Best Free Show in Town competition. This year it’ll have stiff competition from the Republican-on-Republican death cage match between incumbent GOP Governor Brian Kemp and former President Donald J. Trump’s handpicked lapdog, ex-U.S. Senator David Perdue.

I wouldn’t place a bet on this race right now if my life depended on it, but I would wager that it’ll bring the schism between Republicans in blood-red rural Georgia and Metro Atlanta’s purplish suburbs and exurbs into sharper focus than ever before.

Picture the Georgia GOP as Humpty Dumpty. The one thing we know for sure is that the Kemp-Perdue match will pull him off the wall and bust him into at least two big pieces. The question is whether either candidate can put him back together.

The differences in these two wings of the party are profound. Rural Georgia Republicans are among the poorest and least well-educated voters on the planet. Their suburban and exurban GOP cousins are pretty much the exact opposite: highly-educated, economically productive, and very affluent. It was among this latter group that Trump arguably lost Georgia in the 2020 presidential race.

Trying to parse those voting blocs right now strikes me as an exercise in futility. My first impulse would be to give Perdue the edge, thanks almost entirely to the Trump endorsement. It was, after all, a Trump endorsement in 2018 that doomed former Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle’s then-frontrunning gubernatorial bid and all but handed the Republican nomination to Kemp. How can Kemp expect to do without that Trumpian support the second time around?

That line of thinking might hold true in rural Georgia, but the ‘burbs are different. I write this without the benefit of any polling data, but I have to wonder if the stink of Trump still clings to Perdue in those climes — and whether Kemp might have the advantage there. I am no Kemp fan, but I think a fair assessment of his first term has to be that it hasn’t been a total disaster (hey, my expectations are pretty low). He’s chalked up some impressive economic development wins and has somehow managed to avoid embarrassing the state on any kind of regular basis.

Okay, okay, he signed S.B. 202 surrounded by a group of mostly over-fed old white guys while sitting under a painting of a former slave plantation, but — let’s face it — that won’t hurt him with most Republicans. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him use it in a campaign ad — especially in the aforementioned rural regions of the state.

*****

One presumed advantage for Kemp is that he’s built up a $12 million campaign war chest. I say “presumed” because recent history tells us a fat bank account is no guarantee of political success in Georgia (See Barnes, Roy, 2002). On top of that, he’s now apparently sitting on a multi-billion dollar state surplus and wants to spend about $1.6 billion in “tax refunds” to all Georgians.

It’s unclear whether he’ll have to report those refunds as campaign expenditures, but, frankly, it’s also unclear whether they’ll do him much political good. Trump’s name was printed on hundreds of billions of dollars in Covid stimulus checks issued in the spring of 2020 — and he promptly went on to lose re-election a few months later.

His successor, Joe Biden, seems to have fared little better with his own stimulus checks (although he did not have his name printed on the checks); based on recent polling data, it’s far from clear that his stimulus program did him much political good.

If the Trump and Biden experience is any guide, Kemp’s taxpayer refunds will be largely forgotten within a few weeks after the checks go out.

For what it’s worth, I think Kemp missed a Nixon-to-China moment. With a few billion spare bucks lying around, why not put it to strategic use and plow it into hardwiring rural Georgia for broadband internet service? Broadband has, after all, been held out by many Republicans as key to rural Georgia’s salvation, and that kind of initiative would have created hundreds if not thousands of jobs and helped build a foundation for economic development in the parts of the state that need it the most.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2022

Rural Georgia leads race to the bottom in per capita income. The question is, why?

The week before Thanksgiving, I served as the lead-off speaker for a day-long symposium, sponsored by Georgia State University’s Urban Studies Institute, on Georgia’s urban-rural divide. About an hour before I started my presentation, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) put out its annual report on county-level per capita income. It’s a shame I couldn’t have gotten an advance look at the data; it would have provided a great addition to my presentation.

I’ve now spent two or three days rolling around in the data and can already see that I’ll be able to milk several solid posts out of the BEA spreadsheet. For starters, though, I’ll focus on Georgia’s at least mildly surprising showing at the bottom of the nation’s per capita income pile.

One useful thing about the BEA report is that it includes data on more than 3,100 counties and comparable governmental jurisdictions. That makes it possible to compare Georgia to its neighbors and, indeed, the entire country. It also makes it possible to document the extent of the divide between Georgia’s haves and have-nots.

The first unhappy headline out of this data dive is that Georgia counties occupy the bottom two places on the national list. Wheeler County finished 3,114th out of 3,114 counties with a 2020 PCI of $21,087, just behind Telfair County at 3,113th with a PCI of $22,644. As a frame of reference, those figures are less than one-fourth of Fulton County’s state-leading per capita income of $95,683 and about one-tenth the PCI of $220,645 in Teton County, Wyoming, which ranks No. 1 nationally.

Perhaps even more troubling, Georgia is home to 10 of the bottom 30 counties nationally. The only other states with more than two counties in the bottom 30 are Florida with six and South Dakota with four. Because Georgia has so many more counties than most states, it might be possible to argue that the number of counties on any such list isn’t all that important. So, let’s look at population.

Of the 10 states with counties in the Bottom 30, Georgia had a larger share of its population living in those counties than any other state except South Dakota, whose four counties in the Bottom 30 were made up largely or entirely of impoverished Indian reservations. As the table at right shows, some 1.2 percent of Georgia’s overall population resides in a Bottom 30 county; except for South Dakota, all the other states’ Bottom 30 populations were below one-half of one percent.

Still untroubled? Okay, let’s broaden the focus.

As I’ve already suggested, the BEA data allows you to sort and rank all 3,114 counties (and comparable jurisdictions) nationally. Having done that, I’ve also sliced the nation, and the state, into quartiles. Of Georgia’s 159 counties, 104 counties posted 2020 PCIs in the bottom national quartile.

Those 104 counties are home to 28.5 percent of Georgia’s 10.7 million residents — a higher percentage of people living in the bottom quartile than any of its adjoining states except Alabama, where the number is 29.6 percent. This table shows the total populations and quartile splits for Georgia and all its contiguous neighbors.

I’ll have more to say about this in a subsequent post, but one initial takeaway (in my view) is that it’s pretty good illustration of the extent of the chasm between Georgia’s haves and have-nots.

To widen the lens even further, Georgia has more people living in the bottom quartile than any other state in the nation, including Texas, Florida and all the other states with larger populations. Some 3.05 million Georgians live in the bottom PCI quartile.

Texas, with nearly three times Georgia’s population, has only 2.75 million residents living in the bottom quartile. In Florida, which has double Georgia’s population, the number of residents in the bottom quartile is 2.01 million. North Carolina, with essentially the same population as Georgia, has nearly 1.3 million fewer people in its bottom tier counties.

Of the 779 counties in TIGC’s bottom quartile, 104 are in Georgia; only four other states — Arkansas (54 counties), Kentucky (65), Mississippi (55) and Missouri (54) — had more than 50 counties in the bottom quartile.

That rural Georgia’s 2020 per capita income is so low is not in and of itself all that surprising. But that the state performs so much worse than neighboring states like Florida and North Carolina is frankly more than a little disconcerting and a bit of a mystery. How those states have been able to do a better job of moving their populations out of the bottom PCI tier and up the economic ladder is a question that needs to be answered.

Watch this space.

The interactive map below highlights Georgia’s 159 counties based on their National PCI Quartile. The lighter the shade, the higher the quartile.

The interactive table below shows 2020 per capita income data for all 159 Georgia counties, along with their state and national rank and the national quartile into which each county falls.

TIGC takes a fresh look at the political arithmetic of Covid-19 and poses a rude question

With less than 14 months to go before Georgia’s 2022 statewide elections, TIGC has decided it’s time to tackle the obvious political question that other observers and commentators are too polite and high-minded to address, namely: Are Republicans killing their own voters?

This is admittedly tough to prove. But it’s difficult — nay, impossible — to compare the state’s Covid-19 performance with recent election results and not at least wonder. As of this past Friday, the 129 counties that sided with Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election had significantly higher Covid-19 case rates and death rates — and much lower vaccination rates — than the 30 counties that went for Joe Biden.

Some raw numbers: Covid-19 data published Friday, September 10th, by the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) tells us that the Trump counties had suffered 1,077 more deaths than the Biden counties while vaccinating nearly 800,000 fewer people. Perhaps even worse for the Trump counties, their combined 14-day case rate — a measure of current rather than long-term trends — is a solid 41 percent higher than the rate in the Biden counties.

Of course, these numbers alone don’t prove anything. The virus is, as far as we know, politically agnostic, and neither death certificates nor vaccination records list political party preference. Further, it’s probably mathematically possible that an actual body count (an audit, perhaps, that compares death certificates with primary voting histories) would tell a different story. But a look at various bits and pieces of anecdotal data makes it difficult to conclude that Democrats are suffering a bigger Covid-19 hit.

Take, for instance, Brantley County. Located in deep southeast Georgia, Brantley gave Trump his biggest Georgia margin — 90.9 percent of the vote — but, as of Friday’s DPH report, it had the fourth-worst vaccination rate in the state at 20.8 percent. This could be purely coincidental, but your humble scribe here at TIGC is skeptical of that. Of the 51 Covid-19 deaths Brantley had reported by this past Friday, 43 were white, and all but three were 50 or older.

It is, of course, possible to find counternarratives in county-specific data. As an example, dirt-poor and heavily-black Hancock County, which gave Biden one of his biggest margins (72.1 percent) also had the state’s worst Covid-19 death rate as of Friday. That said, Hancock Countians seem to be taking the hint: 42.2 percent had been fully vaccinated as of last Friday, according to DPH data, one of the state’s highest rates, especially among rural counties.

Indeed, any attempt to find county-level correlations between Trump-Biden vote splits and, say, case or death rates is doomed to failure — thanks to a host of other variables that come into play, including race, poverty and educational levels, probably among others.

But at a macro level, fairly clear patterns begin to emerge, as this table shows.

Against the backdrop of those kinds of numbers, you’d think Georgia’s GOP leaders would be doing more to promote vaccinations and other Covid-19 mitigation measures, including masking. While Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican, has gotten vaccinated and publicly encouraged others to do so, it seems fair to say his support for anti-Covid policies has been less than full-throated. He has overridden attempts by local governments to impose masking mandates and other mitigation measures, and he’s up on Twitter today with (so far) three tweets attacking President Biden’s plan to require all businesses with more than 100 employees to ensure they’re vaccinated or at least tested weekly for the virus.

Kemp’s lack of enthusiasm on the anti-Covid front may have trickled down and infected the state’s bureaucracy. DPH has made a good bit of Covid material available to the media on its website and produced at least one television ad earlier this year, but it’s not clear how much play that ad got — or how effective it was. It does seem fair to suggest that the state-level effort left a vacuum that at least some local governments and health departments have felt compelled to try to fill.

As an example, Gwinnett County earlier this year launched a campaign built around “listening to moms” to encourage Covid-19 mitigation measures, including vaccinations, and has reportedly spent more than a half-million dollars on the campaign. It may be getting a decent return on that investment. While Gwinnett went through a Covid “hot spot” phase several months ago and has one of the state’s higher overall case rates, its Covid death rate is one of the lowest in the state and its vaccination rate, at 48.5 percent, ranked 6th best in the state as of last Friday. Its also the largest of the Metro Atlanta counties that was solidly Republican a decade ago but has shifted from red to blue since then: it went nearly 60-40 for Biden in the 2020 election.

TIGC won’t attempt to use these numbers to extrapolate over the next 14 months and estimate an impact on the 2022 elections, but it’s difficult to imagine that any of the state’s Republican politicians or operatives would find much good news — or comfort — in them. If the current 1,077-death difference between the Trump and Biden counties just happens to parallel the difference in voters lost by each party to Covid so far, that alone probably won’t spell the difference in next year’s elections.

But then you have to figure out how to factor in the difference in vaccination rates and recent Delta variant case rates — and layer that onto that the fundamental health differences between the state’s overwhelmingly rural Republican areas and its largely Democratic urban climes, including, specifically, higher rates of lethal comorbidities such as obesity and diabetes. Will those conditions, in combination with Covid-19, compound the premature death rates that are already higher in predominantly Republican rural Georgia?

Governor Kemp’s management of the state’s Covid plague may not quite rise to the level of criminal negligence or manslaughter. But it might yet turn out to be political suicide.

(Couple of notes on my methodology in this piece. In crunching the presidential votes, I’ve ignored Libertarian votes, as I usually do. In analyzing various pieces of DPH data, I’ve found that different units of the department use different population estimates to calculate the various case, death and vaccination rates. The vaccination rates published by DPH are pegged to 2018 population estimates, according to its own “Data Descriptions” published with the daily reports. It’s not clear to me what population estimates DPH uses to calculate daily case and death rates; the numbers don’t quite match any of the annual estimates I can find. In the interest of consistency, I have used 2020 population estimates pulled directly from the Department’s OASIS database (I haven’t had time to get into the actual county-level census counts yet). My use of the 2020 estimates produces slightly different case, death and vaccination rates than those shown on the various DPH reports. Also, many thanks to several Facebook friends who helped me crowdsource information about state and local Covid communications programs, especially old friend Terry L. Wells.)

A first dive into Georgia’s June 9 primary results: a Blue tide rises across the state

I’ve been waiting for all the votes from Georgia’s June 9 party primaries to be counted before jumping into the data and trying to figure out what it all means from a TIGC perspective.  As of Monday morning, the Georgia Secretary of State’s website tells me that all 2,627 precincts in all 159 counties have now been reported, even though the results are still listed as “unofficial” and it’s not clear that all the counties’ results have been certified.  I figure that’s close enough to get started.  If something major changes, I’ll update this report later.

Two years ago, the main political story out of the governor’s race was that rural Georgia and the Atlanta exurbs barely hung on and dragged Republican Brian Kemp across the finish line and into the governor’s office.  The 130 largely rural and sparsely populated counties Kemp carried turned out at a slightly higher rate than the 29 largely urban counties won by Democrat Stacey Abrams.

The story out of the 2020 party primaries appears to be that demography is finally having its way with the state.  This year has long been forecast as the year when the state’s politics would finally tip back in the Democrats favor, and it’s looking like those forecasts might well be correct.  A strong blue tide washed over most of the state in the June 9 primaries, basically flipping the fast-growing ‘burbs in the northern metro area and cutting into Republican margins in most rural counties.

For this analysis, I’ve focused primarily on a comparison between this year’s U.S. Senate primaries and the 2014 primaries for the same seat.  That year, longtime incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss was retiring, and both parties had competitive primaries, especially the Republicans.  Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn, won the Democratic nomination without much difficulty.  The GOP chose David Perdue, a cousin of former Governor Sonny Perdue, after a seven-candidate free-for-all and a run-off with then-U.S. Representative Jack Kingston.  Perdue went on to defeat Nunn and is now running for re-election to a second term.

(I spent some time rummaging around in the presidential primary numbers as well.  The results, not surprisingly, are pretty much the same as I found in the Senate data.  I may do a presidential primary breakout later.)

In that 2014 Senate primary, Republicans cast nearly twice as many votes as Democrats: 605,355 to 328,710.  Two weeks ago, the Senate primary turnout more than doubled its 2014 total – to more than 2.1 million votes – and the Democratic field outpolled Perdue, who was unopposed for nomination to another term, by nearly 200,000 votes: 1,179,198 for the Democrats to 984,274 for Perdue.  Overall the state flipped from about 65%-to-35% Republican in 2014 to nearly 55%-to-45% Democrat this year.

If the topline numbers are eye-catching, some of the subplots are downright jaw-dropping.  Perhaps most startling, the GOP stronghold across the north Atlanta suburbs and exurbs seems to be collapsing.  Cobb and Gwinnett counties were long regarded as critical fortresses in the Republican Party’s grip on power in the state.  Both flipped narrowly for Democrat Hillary Clinton over Republican Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential race, then stuck with Abrams over Kemp in the 2018 governor’s race.

But if those 2016 and 2018 suburban numbers hit hard at GOP HQ, the 2020 results probably felt like a lethal dose of Covid-19 – and it wasn’t just Cobb and Gwinnett.  Cherokee and Forsyth counties, which sit between Cobb and Gwinnett and are fast-growing, affluent exurbs, came in a lot less red this time around.  In the 2014 Senate primaries, both Cherokee and Forsyth delivered more than 10 Republican votes for every Democratic ballot; this year, the margin was just a little over two-to-one.

Overall, those four counties went from being an 80-20 Republican stronghold in 2014 to 56-44 Democratic territory this year, as this table details.

County 2014 Republican Senate Percentage 2014 Democratic Senate Percentage 2020 Republican Senate Percentage 2020 Democratic Senate Percentage Party Shift (R-to-D)
Cherokee 92.2% 7.8% 69.0% 31.0% 23.2%
Cobb 74.7% 25.3% 38.6% 61.4% 36.1%
Forsyth 92.4% 7.6% 66.8% 33.2% 25.6%
Gwinnett 76.8% 23.2% 35.7% 64.3% 41.2%
Totals 80.3% 19.7% 44.1% 55.9% 36.2%

As a whole, the state has shifted 19.3 percentage points in the Democratic Party’s direction since the 2014 Senate primaries.  Not surprisingly, Metro Atlanta has led that shift.  In 2014, TIGC’s 12-county Metro Atlanta region cast 43.7 percent of the state’s votes in the Senate primary and gave the GOP a 58%-to-42% advantage.  This year those same 12 counties accounted for 49.8 percent of the total vote and gave the Democrats a 70%-to-30% advantage.

Forty-two of the state’s 159 counties did tilt toward the GOP in 2020, and those counties delivered 55,669 more Republican ballots than in 2014.  But 116 counties leaned more blue in 2020, and they delivered the Democrats a combined total of 835,332 more votes than in 2014.  Four counties – – Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett and Cobb – each provided more additional votes to the Democrats than the other 42 counties combined did for Republicans.

Indeed, mapping the party shift data suggests that Republicans are being driven largely south and east across the state, perhaps into the Okefenokee Swamp (if not the Atlantic Ocean) and possibly across the state line into Florida, as these maps suggest.

The map on the left shows the counties where Democrats grew their share of the Senate primary vote versus the 2014 Senate primary.  The darker the blue, the bigger the shift from Republican to Democrat.  The map on the right shows the same thing for counties that shifted Republican between 2014 and 2020.

The two counties that posted the biggest Democrat-to-Republican shifts over the past six years are Atkinson and Clinch, adjoining counties in deep southeast Georgia.  Both cast more Democratic ballots in the 2014 Senate primaries but have flipped hard Republican since then; Atkinson has shifted 67.4 percentage points to the GOP over the past six years, Clinch, 43.1 points.  Together, however, they contributed fewer than 2,700 votes to the Republican cause.

If Georgia as a whole is now more competitive than it has been in a couple of decades, that’s no longer true of the vast majority of its individual counties.  In 97 counties, at least 70 percent of voters cast their ballots for one party or the other.

Only eight counties were decided within the truly competitive range of 55%-to-45%.  Thomas, Mitchell, Meriwether, Houston, Lowndes, Telfair and Early counties tilted narrowly to the GOP (Early by a single vote, 1,417-to-1,416), while Fayette, long considered safe GOP territory, turned a pale shade of blue.  The largest of these may well become battleground counties in the fall campaigns.

At the extremes, Democrats need not bother venturing into such rural climes as Glascock, Echols, Berrien and Pierce, which, among others, gave more than 90 percent of their ballots to the Republican Party.

As one measure of just how red rural Georgia has become, Dodge and Haralson counties, the homes of the last two Democratic speakers of the Georgia House of Representatives, Terry Coleman and Tom Murphy, both champions of rural causes, gave 86 and 90.2 percent, respectively, of their votes to Republicans this time around.

By the same token, Perdue and other Republicans probably have little to gain by spending time or money in Clayton County (91 percent Democrat) or DeKalb (89.8 percent).  For the uninitiated, Clayton and DeKalb are a good bit bigger than all the high-percentage GOP counties combined.

Bottom line, if there is little obvious good news in these numbers for Georgia Republicans or rural Georgia, they should not be read as the basis for a sure bet that the state will flip this year.

GOP turnout was arguably depressed by the fact that both their Senate and presidential primaries were uncontested, and their voters had less reason to turn out, especially in the midst of a pandemic.  What’s more, Democratic Senate nominee Jon Ossoff will have his work cut out for him.  Prodigious fundraiser that he is, he barely avoided a runoff and will have to consolidate the support of his six Democratic primary opponents.

The one good bet for the fall is that it will be a turnout election.  With a few exceptions, neither Perdue nor Ossoff will have much incentive to spend time or money trying to convert voters in their opponent’s territory.  Instead, they’re likely to put their effort into activating their geographic bases, which is virtually certain to deepen Georgia’s political divide even further.  That, in turn, will only complicate efforts to create a policy construct needed to address the challenges facing rural Georgia.

 

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

There’s a persistent pattern I’ve noticed in various buckets of economic, population, and education data, but I’ve never fully connected the dots or taken a stab at suggesting what it all might mean.  Now seems like a good time to do that.

Rural Georgia — and especially Middle and South Georgia — got the crap kicked out of it by the Great Recession and never has recovered.  Maybe that’s been obvious to everybody else, but it might be useful to look at several data points to get a sense of just how bad the damage has been — especially now that COVID-19 has rolled in and begun raining its own special brand of hell down on the state, and especially southwest Georgia.

I think the first part of the Great Recession picture I noticed was the result of an almost whimsical notion on my part.  I’d made numerous references to “the death of rural Georgia,” but I was thinking metaphorically about local economies and the collapse of various critical parts of community infrastructures, like school systems and hospitals.

Then one day I wondered if some of them might really be, literally, dying.

Turns out that’s an easy enough thing to check.  Thanks to the Georgia Department of Public Health’s excellent, publicly-accessible OASIS database, you can easily download county-level birth and death data for the past 24 years (since 1994) and use it to easily see whether many counties were reporting more deaths than births.

For about the first dozen or so years — from 1994 until 2009 — there wasn’t much news in those numbers.  The number of counties reporting more deaths than births floated up and down between a high of 19 (2002) and a low of eight (2006).

But then, coinciding with the onset of Great Recession, that number began a steady climb.  The year 2007 saw 13 counties report more deaths than births, an average year; in 2008, the number rose to 18,  a significant jump but still within the range seen up until that point.  In 2010, the number of counties reporting more deaths than births ticked up to 20 — not much of an increase, but a new high.  Since then, as this graph shows, the number has climbed steadily and dramatically.

More Deaths than Births Column Graph

As of 2018, 79 of Georgia’s 159 counties reported more deaths than births.  Of those, 78 are outside Metro Atlanta and the vast majority are small rural counties, as the map to the right illustrates.2018 More Deaths Than Births

The only Metro Atlanta county to make this group was Fayette County, long recognized as a redoubt for retirees well beyond child-bearing age.

Of course, suffering more deaths than births is not the only way to lose population, but it can hardly be regarded as a positive trend.  More than 60 counties lost population in the 10-year period from 2009 through 2018.

The second data point I noticed had to do with education — specifically, the number of high school graduates each county was sending to a University System of Georgia (USG) college or university. I’ve written about this before, but I’ve never really spotlighted how the pattern changed with the onset of the Great Recession.

Up until 2011, the 147 counties outside Metro Atlanta sent more freshmen to University System of Georgia institutions than the 12 Metro Atlanta counties, which is probably what you’d expect. But (as this graph shows) the number of freshmen being sent from those counties to USG institutions started to flatten out and decline in 2008 and ’09, and then basically fell off a cliff for the next several years before beginning what looks like a relatively weak recovery.

Metro Atlanta enrollment also took a significant hit, but it recovered faster and finally got back to its high-water mark in 2017 and ’18.  The other 147 counties saw their combined numbers drop through 2014 before showing any improvement, and they are still well below the numbers they posted prior to the Great Recession.

Finally, economics.  Based on various pots of Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) data, I’ve reported that Metro Atlanta suffered a bigger initial economic hit but recovered faster and has since widened the gap between itself and the rest of the state.  But perhaps the clearest picture emerged late last year when the BEA, a unit of the Commerce Department, published county-level Gross Domestic Product (GDP) data for the first 18 years of this century.

The pattern is the same, as this graph illustrates.  GD{ Growth Metro Atlanta vs. 147 Counties

The 12 Metro Atlanta counties suffered significant drops in GDP in 2008 and ’09, and it took the region until 2013 to get back to pre-Great Recession levels.  The rest of the state took a softer hit but needed an extra year — until 2014 — to get back to pre-recession highs, and the growth since then has been fairly tepid.

This table shows GDP by region for each of the Trouble in God’s Country regions for selected years ($s in 000s).  Regional GDP ChartThe key takeaways from this are that — since the state began emerging from the recession in about 2013 — my TIGC Middle Georgia and South Georgia regions have lagged badly behind the rest of the state (and Metro Atlanta in particular), struggling to average a growth rate of one percent a year.

I can probably get an argument from actual economists or statisticians about cause-and-effect, but I’ll go out on a limb here and conjecture that the Great Recession set in motion forces that have contributed dramatically to the continued decimation of Georgia’s (and no doubt America’s) rural regions.

Significant areas of rural Georgia were suffering population loss and economic contraction even before COVID-19 hit (and now they’re sending fewer young people to college, let alone getting them back home if and when they graduate).

As perhaps the most dramatic example, Dougherty County lost more than three percent of its population and five percent of its GDP between 2009 and 2018 — and that, obviously, was before the novel coronavirus turned it into the public health equivalent of Chernobyl.

The same, indeed, is true for the entire southwest Georgia region.  Nearly every county in the Albany region has suffered both population losses and GDP contractions in the past decade, and now they have among the worst COVID-19 case rates in the nation and probably on the planet.

That, I think, is the new definition of trouble in God’s country, and it’s difficult to even envision what a recovery strategy and process might look like.  Whatever that strategy and process turns out to be, it will probably take generations to accomplish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Covid-19 seems to be hitting Georgia harder than its neighboring states

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.

March 30 SE Covid Table

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.

__________

Meanwhile, the Economic Innovation Group, whose work I’ve cited on a number of occasions, is out with a new report focusing on the challenges Covid-19 poses for the country’s most “distressed communities,” many of which are rural.  Indeed, the new EIG report echoes and puts meat on the bones of an argument I started making nearly two weeks ago — namely, that Covid-19 represented a “perfect storm” for rural Georgia.

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:

  1. The uninsured rate for residents of distressed counties is much higher than those living elsewhere.
  2. Residents of distressed counties are more likely to be elderly and susceptible to complications resulting from coronavirus infection.
  3. Life-threatening health disorders are more prevalent and more dangerous in distressed areas.
  4. 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.

 

 

 

TIGC Covid-19 March 28 Round-Up

Random Questions and Observations on Covid-19:

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

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

New Kaiser Health News data adds political dimension to Covid-19 crisis

[Note: The third data column in the table about a half-dozen paragraphs down was mislabeled when this was initially posted.  It has now been corrected thanks to a good catch by alert reader Denese Whitney.  Trouble in God’s Country appreciates the help.]

Last Thursday I posted a piece suggesting that Covid-19 might constitute a perfect storm for rural Georgia — that old age and poor health status could combine with a frail healthcare delivery system to put rural areas in particular jeopardy.  Since then a couple of reports have come out that support that view and bring certain healthcare and political realities into sharp focus.

First was a report Saturday from Kaiser Health News (KHN) that documented the number of ICU beds available in virtually every U.S. county and compared those numbers with the population of people 60 and older in each of those counties.  That’s not a perfect measure of an older person’s access to critical care, of course; just because there’s not an ICU bed in your home county doesn’t mean there’s not one in the next county or a nearby city.  But it’s not a bad measure of the magnitude of the healthcare challenge taking shape.

The second was a report in today’s Washington Post.  Philip Bump, one of the nation’s top data journalists, took the KHN data and laid it over county-level data from the 2016 presidential election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

“Comparing the county-level data from Kaiser Health News to 2016 presidential election data,” Bump wrote,  “we discovered a remarkable bit of data: About 8.3 million people who voted for Trump in 2016 live in counties where there are no ICU beds or no hospitals. That amounts to about 13 percent of the total votes Trump earned in that election, or one out of every eight votes.

“Those counties are also home to about 3.8 million people who voted for Hillary Clinton, a figure which makes up only about 5 percent of her total. Most of the counties voted for Trump by wide margins; he won them by an average of 41 points. He won 10 times as many counties with no ICU beds as did Clinton.”

This afternoon I’ve pulled Kaiser’s Georgia data and combined it with data from Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election and today’s Georgia Department of Public Health report on the number of people in the state who have tested positive for Covid-19.  (As of mid-day today, that number was up to 600 people from 59 counties; 38 of the “positives” were from “unknown” counties.)

Overall, the situation here in Georgia is a microcosm of the national picture Bump found — and if the primary goal in this situation is to try to meet the healthcare needs of the entire state, state politics, as always, hovers not very far in the background and imposes a set of difficult strictures on the process.

In the 2018 gubernatorial election, Brian Kemp, the Republican nominee who ultimately won and is now governor, largely swept rural Georgia, carrying 130 counties.  Of those, 83 don’t have a single ICU bed (indeed, most don’t even have hospitals).  Combined, those counties have a population of 1.7 million, more than 380,000 of whom (22 percent) are over 60.  So far, only 47 of the state’s 600 confirmed Covid-19 cases hail from those counties, but it seems likely those numbers will rise as testing becomes more available in rural areas.

In contrast, the Democratic nominee, Stacey Abrams, dominated the state’s urban areas, which has a much younger population and much more robust healthcare delivery systems.  Twelve of the 29 counties she carried were indeed rural (including a half-dozen southwest Georgia counties that are now in the orbit of the Covid-19 hotspot erupting in and around Albany) and also boast no ICU beds of their own.  But the overwhelming majority of her support came from urban and suburban areas that are home to large healthcare systems with a good number of ICU beds.

This table illustrates the contrast.

Kemp Abrams ICU Bed Table

The 130 counties Kemp carried are home to right at 52 percent of the state’s 60-plus population but have fewer than a third of the state’s ICU beds.

To use Philip Bump’s Washington Post framework, more than a half-million Georgians who voted for Kemp — about 25 percent of his total — reside in counties without a single ICU bed.  That’s true of only about 10 percent of Abrams’s voters.

Again, rural Georgians who fall victim to Covid-19 may well be able to get access to an ICU bed in Metro Atlanta or another major city if they need it, but the current pandemic does seem to put a sharp new focus on a problem that has bedeviled the state’s Republicans since they took power at the turn of the century — how to provide healthcare to rural areas that constitute their political base.

For a decade now, the state’s GOP leaders have steadfastly refused to take advantage of billions of dollars in Medicaid Expansion funds and presided over a steady stream of rural hospital failures.

I’ll try to do more with this over the next couple of days.  For now, here’s a complete list of Georgia counties with all the data discussed in this post.

County # !CU Beds # Covid-19 Cases Confirmed by DPH 3/22/20 Brian Kemp’s % of 2018 General Election Vote Stacey Abrams’s % of the 2018 General Election Vote Population Aged 60+ Percent Population Aged 60+
Appling 3 0 79.7% 19.9% 4208 22.8%
Atkinson 0 0 74.4% 25.2% 1451 17.5%
Bacon 4 0 86.7% 12.7% 2329 20.6%
Baker 0 0 58.2% 41.4% 919 28.3%
Baldwin 12 2 49.5% 49.8% 9287 20.4%
Banks 0 0 89.8% 9.4% 4207 22.9%
Barrow 6 1 73.6% 25.2% 12454 16.6%
Bartow 21 57 76.1% 22.8% 18389 17.9%
Ben Hill 5 0 63.9% 35.6% 3982 23.1%
Berrien 0 0 85.0% 14.4% 4266 22.4%
Bibb 117 1 38.4% 61.0% 31993 20.8%
Bleckley 0 0 78.6% 20.5% 2860 22.4%
Brantley 0 0 91.3% 8.1% 3792 20.6%
Brooks 0 0 61.5% 38.1% 4099 26.2%
Bryan 0 0 70.1% 28.8% 4985 14.3%
Bulloch 24 0 62.8% 36.3% 11463 15.5%
Burke 0 0 50.6% 48.9% 4540 20.0%
Butts 0 1 71.7% 27.7% 4813 20.4%
Calhoun 0 0 42.7% 57.1% 1362 20.9%
Camden 5 0 65.3% 33.6% 8503 16.3%
Candler 6 0 72.4% 27.2% 2476 22.7%
Carroll 18 14 69.8% 29.1% 20423 17.8%
Catoosa 0 0 79.5% 19.3% 14752 22.4%
Charlton 0 1 75.1% 24.4% 2473 19.1%
Chatham 78 4 40.0% 58.9% 56014 19.6%
Chattahoochee 0 0 54.5% 44.7% 645 5.8%
Chattooga 0 1 79.9% 19.4% 5705 22.9%
Cherokee 15 18 72.1% 26.3% 42210 17.9%
Clarke 104 9 28.6% 70.3% 17345 14.0%
Clay 0 0 45.3% 54.0% 937 31.0%
Clayton 34 13 11.8% 87.8% 36959 13.5%
Clinch 0 0 76.1% 23.6% 1466 21.6%
Cobb 119 61 44.6% 54.0% 120689 16.3%
Coffee 10 0 70.7% 28.8% 7860 18.3%
Colquitt 10 0 75.9% 23.5% 8918 19.4%
Columbia 0 3 66.5% 32.5% 26092 18.2%
Cook 0 0 70.9% 28.7% 3527 20.5%
Coweta 19 8 69.7% 29.1% 25269 18.3%
Crawford 0 0 72.9% 26.4% 2798 22.6%
Crisp 16 0 63.0% 36.6% 5331 23.2%
Dade 0 0 82.5% 16.2% 4079 25.1%
Dawson 0 1 85.9% 13.1% 6208 26.5%
Decatur 10 0 60.2% 39.4% 5831 21.6%
DeKalb 168 45 15.7% 83.4% 121505 16.5%
Dodge 6 0 73.9% 25.7% 4726 22.4%
Dooly 0 0 52.7% 47.0% 3522 25.1%
Dougherty 50 48 29.8% 69.8% 18997 20.8%
Douglas 8 4 39.4% 59.8% 22028 15.7%
Early 0 2 55.2% 44.5% 2739 26.3%
Echols 0 0 88.2% 11.0% 681 17.0%
Effingham 0 2 76.9% 22.0% 9061 15.9%
Elbert 4 0 70.0% 29.5% 5092 26.4%
Emanuel 8 0 70.0% 29.5% 4782 21.3%
Evans 0 0 69.4% 30.2% 2260 21.0%
Fannin 5 0 83.0% 16.1% 8800 35.9%
Fayette 37 9 56.0% 42.7% 25277 22.9%
Floyd 65 9 71.1% 27.8% 20941 21.7%
Forsyth 24 4 70.6% 28.0% 33215 15.7%
Franklin 8 0 86.5% 12.7% 5691 25.5%
Fulton 538 108 26.8% 72.2% 159840 15.8%
Gilmer 0 0 83.7% 15.3% 9166 31.0%
Glascock 0 0 91.4% 8.2% 713 23.6%
Glynn 24 3 63.6% 35.6% 20679 24.8%
Gordon 8 4 81.9% 17.1% 10941 19.4%
Grady 4 0 67.3% 32.3% 5593 22.3%
Greene 0 0 65.1% 34.4% 6034 36.1%
Gwinnett 82 27 42.3% 56.5% 122430 13.8%
Habersham 4 0 83.5% 15.6% 10665 24.3%
Hall 85 9 73.4% 25.5% 36793 19.1%
Hancock 0 0 24.7% 75.0% 2435 28.1%
Haralson 0 0 87.7% 11.5% 6357 22.1%
Harris 0 0 74.0% 25.2% 7948 23.9%
Hart 0 0 76.6% 22.6% 7015 27.5%
Heard 0 1 83.2% 16.1% 2692 23.2%
Henry 40 7 42.0% 57.3% 34127 15.7%
Houston 36 1 57.9% 41.1% 25522 17.0%
Irwin 0 0 75.8% 23.9% 2170 23.4%
Jackson 0 0 81.6% 17.4% 12724 19.9%
Jasper 0 0 74.5% 24.9% 3116 22.7%
Jeff Davis 4 0 82.6% 16.9% 3219 21.5%
Jefferson 0 0 47.0% 52.6% 3828 24.0%
Jenkins 0 0 64.7% 35.0% 2049 22.9%
Johnson 0 0 72.5% 27.2% 2334 23.8%
Jones 0 0 67.8% 31.6% 6333 22.2%
Lamar 0 3 69.4% 29.9% 3955 21.6%
Lanier 0 0 71.3% 28.4% 1972 19.0%
Laurens 16 2 65.9% 33.6% 10610 22.4%
Lee 0 16 74.7% 24.8% 4964 17.0%
Liberty 0 0 36.2% 63.1% 7447 12.0%
Lincoln 0 1 69.4% 29.9% 2318 29.8%
Long 0 0 64.7% 34.4% 2398 13.4%
Lowndes 48 8 57.7% 41.6% 17921 15.7%
Lumpkin 0 1 79.2% 19.3% 7478 23.7%
Macon 0 0 36.9% 62.9% 2925 21.4%
Madison 0 0 78.5% 20.7% 6721 23.5%
Marion 0 0 63.9% 35.3% 2190 25.6%
McDuffie 0 0 60.5% 39.0% 4855 22.6%
McIntosh 0 0 59.5% 40.0% 4475 31.8%
Meriwether 0 0 58.9% 40.4% 5261 24.9%
Miller 0 1 77.9% 21.6% 1561 26.5%
Mitchell 0 0 56.2% 43.5% 4919 21.8%
Monroe 0 1 71.9% 27.2% 6594 24.6%
Montgomery 0 0 76.1% 23.3% 1891 21.1%
Morgan 0 0 71.2% 28.0% 4678 26.0%
Murray 0 0 85.8% 13.4% 7520 19.1%
Muscogee 61 2 38.6% 60.7% 34483 17.4%
Newton 10 4 45.1% 54.3% 18455 17.6%
Oconee 0 1 69.8% 29.0% 7602 21.1%
Oglethorpe 0 0 70.5% 28.4% 3441 23.5%
Paulding 8 4 66.6% 32.5% 21365 14.0%
Peach 0 3 52.2% 47.3% 5201 19.2%
Pickens 6 2 84.8% 14.2% 8464 27.9%
Pierce 0 0 88.9% 10.7% 4228 22.1%
Pike 0 0 85.7% 13.6% 3658 20.4%
Polk 0 4 79.1% 20.1% 8705 21.0%
Pulaski 6 0 69.8% 29.8% 2806 24.6%
Putnam 0 0 71.9% 27.5% 6275 29.3%
Quitman 0 0 55.5% 43.6% 913 42.7%
Rabun 0 0 80.0% 18.8% 5564 34.0%
Randolph 0 1 45.1% 54.4% 2258 31.3%
Richmond 264 10 31.5% 67.7% 38152 18.9%
Rockdale 16 2 32.0% 67.4% 17124 19.4%
Schley 0 0 81.0% 18.3% 1100 21.3%
Screven 0 0 60.4% 39.4% 3450 24.6%
Seminole 0 0 66.7% 32.8% 2541 29.7%
Spalding 22 2 61.2% 37.9% 14777 23.0%
Stephens 6 0 80.7% 18.6% 6327 24.7%
Stewart 0 0 41.8% 58.0% 1209 20.7%
Sumter 10 2 48.8% 50.7% 6539 21.3%
Talbot 0 0 39.5% 59.8% 2045 31.8%
Taliaferro 0 0 38.1% 61.6% 511 27.7%
Tattnall 0 0 76.3% 23.1% 4769 18.8%
Taylor 0 0 62.9% 36.5% 2020 24.4%
Telfair 0 0 66.8% 32.8% 3802 23.3%
Terrell 0 2 45.7% 53.9% 2148 23.9%
Thomas 35 0 61.2% 38.3% 10319 23.0%
Tift 20 2 69.7% 29.7% 8091 20.0%
Toombs 8 0 74.8% 24.8% 5815 21.4%
Towns 0 0 81.7% 17.4% 4566 40.9%
Treutlen 0 0 68.9% 30.8% 1666 24.7%
Troup 20 4 60.9% 38.4% 13380 19.3%
Turner 0 1 63.0% 36.6% 2004 24.9%
Twiggs 0 1 52.7% 46.8% 2395 28.8%
Union 5 0 83.4% 15.6% 8856 39.8%
Upson 28 0 66.8% 32.6% 6294 24.0%
Walker 0 0 81.0% 17.9% 16583 24.2%
Walton 7 0 76.9% 22.4% 17821 20.1%
Ware 22 0 71.7% 27.8% 7974 22.3%
Warren 0 0 46.6% 53.1% 1586 29.3%
Washington 0 0 50.6% 49.1% 4483 21.9%
Wayne 12 0 80.2% 19.1% 6149 20.6%
Webster 0 0 59.9% 40.0% 671 25.5%
Wheeler 0 0 71.1% 28.7% 1550 19.5%
White 0 0 84.5% 14.4% 7553 26.5%
Whitfield 34 2 72.3% 26.8% 18625 17.9%
Wilcox 0 0 73.3% 26.5% 1960 22.0%
Wilkes 0 0 59.0% 40.4% 2863 28.9%
Wilkinson 0 0 55.6% 44.0% 2285 25.0%
Worth 0 2 75.4% 24.1% 5131 24.7%
Totals 2508 562     1,863,154 18.3%