Opinion: Help rural Georgia? What’s in it for the rest of us?

TIFTON — The latest bid to shore up rural Georgia is under way, and some urban-dwellers might be asking: Why?

Not only because previous efforts have failed, or because the skeptics are more than a generation or two removed from the farm. No, they may be genuinely, benignly curious why state lawmakers should step forward like modern-day King Canutes, commanding a halt to the tide of migrants from Camilla and Waycross to Atlanta and Savannah.

The tide will come anyway, will it not? People have voted with their feet. Even if lawmakers can do something to reverse this apparent result of geographic natural selection, why should they?

The first part of that question — what can be done — is the main one facing members of the House Rural Development Council. Speaker David Ralston charged council members with undertaking a “thorough, intensive and systematic study” of rural Georgia’s problems and opportunities.

It will not be easy. The numbers, presented by various experts at the council’s inaugural meeting in Tifton this past week, say so.

Seventy-eight of Georgia’s counties, or just about half, lost population between 2010 and 2015; 36 of them had more deaths than births during those years. This is a long-running trend, but it’s accelerating: The number of counties with more deaths than births in a single year rose from seven in 2006 to a staggering 60 in 2015.

While Georgia’s overall population continues to rise, two-thirds of the recent growth has accrued to just seven counties: six in metro Atlanta, plus Chatham County (Savannah). In 11 counties, census-takers counted fewer heads in 2010 than they did in 1860. Yes, 1860.

Forget rehabilitation; merely stopping the bleeding would be a feat in some of these places. Regrettably, for some parts of rural Georgia, it may be that nothing at this point can be done.

But that surely isn’t true everywhere, so let’s consider the “should” part. There are daunting numbers here, too.

Consider a comparison between one of Georgia’s healthiest counties, Oconee (near Athens), and two of its most sickly, Crisp and Wilcox (neighbors about halfway between Macon and Tifton). Charlie Hayslett, a former journalist who documents rural Georgia’s plight at TroubleInGodsCountry.com, told council members Crisp and Wilcox have about four times the poverty rate, twice the jobless rate and half the per capita income of Oconee, plus more low birth-weight babies and more premature deaths.

Those stats are morally troubling. But for anyone still unmoved, the kicker is budgetary: While Crisp and Wilcox together have almost exactly the same population as Oconee, they had just $12 million in state income tax liability to Oconee’s $40.2 million — but collected $44.2 million in Medicaid benefits to Oconee’s $11.2 million.

That’s only a partial snapshot, but it’s a stark one. It would take many decades for de-population to reduce the rural counties’ fiscal gap, and matters would only get worse along the way. Helping them get back on their feet would improve the numbers more quickly.

There’s another side to this too, offered by David Bridges, president of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, which hosted the council’s meeting. Playing off Hayslett’s comparison, Bridges noted that if one subtracts the cost of food consumed in a county from its farm gate value, rural Decatur County is in the black. But Fulton (minus-$4.3 billion) and Gwinnett (minus-$3.9 billion) and Cobb and DeKalb (minus-$3.2 billion apiece) are deeply in the red.

Some parts of rural Georgia may not rebound, but some of them must if we’re to have food on our tables — not to mention cotton for our clothes and timber for our homes. (By the way: Rural struggles are a nationwide phenomenon, so we city folk won’t be saved by farmers in other states.)

It’s not dependence so much as interdependence. And that’s why we should try to figure out what we can do.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Opinion

Opinion: Leave Confederacy’s old monuments alone

I’ve had it with the people who choose to be offended by the symbols and memorabilia from the nation’s past. First it was Confederate flags. Now monuments and statues have to go. What’s next? The carving at Stone Mountain? Oh yeah, now someone wants that wiped out! What the hell is wrong with us? Have we lost all sense of reason,...
Charlottesville can teach valuable lessons

The brazen, terroristic march of the KKK, neo-Nazis, white nationalists and white supremacists through an American city in defense of the Confederacy is both tragic and telling. It is tragic because it reveals the depth and deadly consequences of a spiritual sickness spreading in our nation 60 years after Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others organized...
Opinion: Varied viewpoints on old American nightmare

An extraordinary and sad week of the American experience has drawn to a close, even as continuing debate and analysis pores over last weekend’s violent outburst of race-based rioting in Charlottesville. Pundits and ordinary citizens alike have been offering their viewpoints as to what happened in that college town last Saturday, culminating with...
Opinion: President Show Pony and his do-nothing Congress
Opinion: President Show Pony and his do-nothing Congress

(AP) When Donald Trump walked out to the TV cameras and microphones at Trump Tower on Tuesday, his supposed mission was to publicize an executive order that he had just signed on federal infrastructure projects. As we know by now though, what he really, really wanted to talk about was Charlottesville. Because that’s how...
Opinion: Why have our debates become so stupid?
Opinion: Why have our debates become so stupid?

You know the drill by now. Something horrible occurs — such as white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, sparking a street fight with leftist vigilantes, leading to the death of a young woman, police say, by a man described as a Nazi sympathizer. All this is followed by calls for a “national conversation.” And yet, despite our...
More Stories