(Note: I wrote this yesterday afternoon and decided to sleep on it and give it a fresh read-through this morning. In the process, I got scooped by The New York Times, which is leading this morning’s web edition with a terrific story on this same issue at https://nyti.ms/2VyTbam.)
Lately President Trump has taken to proclaiming that the United States is “full.” He said it a few times over the last few days and has tweeted it at least a couple of times, including Sunday.
Well, not really.
Let me say here that I know full well that this notion is entirely ludicrous and will no doubt subject me to all manner of ridicule, much of it probably deserved. Truth is, I’m not really suggesting anything specific. I’m not even sure what a specific recommendation would look like.
The truth is that a core problem afflicting rural America is population loss. Here in Georgia, whole regions are hollowing out. In 2017, 71 of Georgia’s 159 counties recorded more deaths than births. All but one, Glynn County, were rural.
Georgia has 33 counties with populations of less than 10,000 people. Of those, only five posted any population gains at all over the five-year period 2013 through 2017 (the most recent for which the U.S. Census Bureau has posted estimates). And of the five that did grow, only two managed to grow more than one percent – for the entire five-year period.
The 16 counties that make up the southwestern-most corner of Georgia lost more than 9,000 people in that five-year period, or 3.4 percent of their population. Only Lee County, which has evolved as the white-flight county north of Albany and Dougherty County, posted a gain (2.6 percent) for that five-year period; the other 15 all lost population.
Dougherty County, historically the economic, cultural and political center of Southwest Georgia, is bleeding population; in the 2013-2017 span, it lost 5.5 percent of its population, or more than 1,000 people a year.
It shouldn’t need to be said that losing population is generally not a good thing. The pattern in rural Georgia is that young people leave, especially if they have a college education. Population decline naturally shrinks the consumer base, and that leads to weakened sales and property tax revenues. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that some areas of rural Georgia are now in a death spiral.
Could it be that we have two problems here that might help solve one another?
Again, I know this is nuts, for a whole host of reasons. Neither Trump nor his loyal Republican Southern governors (who preside over many of the worst rural disaster areas in the country) would even begin to entertain a strategy of deliberately importing, say, caravans of people from Mexico and Central America to dying rural communities in South Georgia. What’s more, the vast majority of those counties voted overwhelmingly for Trump, and it’s a sure bet these are the folks who favor building that wall, even if we have to pay for it.
All that said, it’s worth noting that, to some degree, people from outside the U.S. are already finding their way to struggling rural communities, even as locals move away. Probably the most dramatic example in Georgia is Stewart County, which is one of those 16 counties in deep southwest Georgia.
Over the five-year period form 2013 through 2017, according to Census Bureau data, 552 locals moved out of Stewart County, and there were 122 more deaths than births. But 479 people from outside the United States moved into Stewart County. (Note to self: Find out what the heck’s happening in Stewart County.)
For that 16-county Southwest Georgia region, international in-migration is about the only positive trend going. For the period 2013-through-2017, literally every one of those 16 counties suffered a loss of domestic population – locals moving out. Half that group had at least some international in-migration. Altogether, the 16-county region lost 13,515 domestic residents and got back about one-tenth of that – 1,332 people – in international migrants.
As a region, Southwest Georgia is still reporting more births than deaths, but the margin is narrowing. Eleven of the 16 counties posted more deaths than births for the 2013-through-2017 period, and not one of the 16 is experiencing anything that could be considered a positive trend in its birth-to-death ratio.
As this graph shows, these trends have been a long time developing. The number of births in the region began to drop precipitously in 2007, and the number of deaths began a slower climb in 2011. If the current trends continue, these lines will cross within a few years.
It will, of course, take a lot more than new population growth to revitalize rural Georgia’s struggling counties and communities. But without that new population, it’s not clear that much else will matter.
For the third time in this piece, I know what I’m suggesting here is crazy and has less than zero chance of happening, in any form or fashion. But for South Georgia and much of the rest of rural America, the only thing that might be crazier is to do nothing. For these areas, it’s way past time to start thinking outside the box.
(Notes: The data in this post was drawn primarily from two sources. The population data came from a recent update by the USDA’s Economic Research Service of U.S. Census Bureau county-level estimates. The data from the Births & Deaths chart immediately above was pulled from the Georgia Department of Health’s OASIS system. The 16 counties included in the 16-county Southwest Georgia region referenced in this piece are: Baker, Calhoun, Clay, Decatur, Dougherty, Early, Grady, Lee, Miller, Mitchell, Quitman, Randolph, Seminole, Stewart, Terrell, and Webster.)
© Trouble in God’s Country 2019