Opinion: Why rural Georgia’s plight matters to those living in the big city

A farmer in Sylvania, Georgia, applies weed control to his corn field. (AJC Photo / Hyosub Shin)

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, at the council’s inaugural meeting in Tifton on Monday, charged 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 Monday and Tuesday, 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 of revenues to expenditures, 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 the county’s 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 0

111 comments
redhead00
redhead00

Winfield's analysis about rural Georgia is generally on target.  Citing the comparison of Crisp and Wilcox to Oconee isn't.  Wilcox really is rural, and Crisp is what the Census Bureau calls "micropolitan."  Oconee, on the other hand, is part of the Athens Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) and is often considered a suburb that represents white flight from Clarke County.


Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@redhead00 Point taken, but the reason for that particular comparison was more about the consequences of having some parts of the state being so much worse off than others, whether they're both rural or not.

AndyManUSA#45
AndyManUSA#45

Just in case you were wondering, Fox News sucks.


Big time.

AndyManUSA#45
AndyManUSA#45

Another blessed day without obozo or hillary being in charge of us. 


What lie will the monkey media tell today?


Why do we still have a deep state?

rboutwell
rboutwell

I moved to Habersham county from Fulton five years ago. The problems here are very real and will have serious consequences for the large metro populations if ignored. This article is spot on.

Art Chance
Art Chance

I'm a major part of the "problem" with rural Georgia. I graduated from HS in '67 with a well into four digits SAT, back when that meant something, and was a National Merit finalist.   I spent the summer of '67 around home doing kid things, rode the "Dog" off to school and have never spent another day in Emanuel County, Georgia as other than a guest.

In those days, "What does 'yo daddy do" was the whole of a job interview and my future in rural Georgia was the minimum wage with maybe a couple of dollars an hour in raises if I hung on, or the company hung on, for twenty years or more.   Being of sound mind, I went to school, played rock 'n roll music, did a little trading in recreational substances and wound up in Atlanta.  If you live in rural Georgia, your first born son, your good-looking daughter, and all your money is going to Atlanta; if they ever come back, they won't be the same.

Tiring of it being safer to go to the bank without my pants than without my pistol in Atlanta, I packed up then-wife, kid, and dog and went to Alaska in '74.   I've had a life that most of my peers who didn't inherit timber or money could hardly dream of.   I ended my working life in government and got as far as you can get without putting your name on a ballot or being confirmed by a Legislature.

I grew up on land that had been in my family since the Creek Cession Lottery in 1795.   All my military age ancestors served in the Army of Northern Virginia, and most of those who served are in unmarked graves in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.   I sold the last piece of that land last year and will never be back except as a guest; Georgia's loss.

jim10101010
jim10101010

Is it a state or federal problem?  If we hadn't shipped our manufacturing overseas and hadn't invited the world to America, would this problem exist?  Thirty years ago manufacturing was a main stay of rural America.  You could get a job in  rural areas.  Now we aren't even sure you can get a job in urban areas due in large part to illegal aliens.

RufusATL
RufusATL

I think the main reason for the retreat of the AJC from South Georgia  was due to lack of readership.  I believe it is a mind set with the folks there--one of "don't confuse me with the facts."  Ignorance of the changing world and the lack of marketable skills are among the main determinants of the current rural face of Georgia.

bu22
bu22

@RufusATL Or maybe they got tired of condescending bigotry in the pages of the AJC?

SGTGrit
SGTGrit

America is no longer passive it's mad. Forget about the polls, America is mad, madder than hell and that isn't where our enemies want to be this countries focus.

SGTGrit
SGTGrit

It isn't just time to take charge of our country, it's time to take over our country.

Starik
Starik

@SGTGrit Too late. The country you think is "our country" is gone forvever.

SGTGrit
SGTGrit

@Starik @SGTGrit  No it really isn't. Do you know or can you even imagine how many firearms there are in America. Do you think radicle Islam knows more about cutting off heads or torture than we do. We don't need water boarding we know how to take that piss com[lected shyte for a helo ride up to a few hundred ft. and make them sing like canaries.

Starik
Starik

@SGTGrit @Starik Torture prisoners, or give them "helo rides." makes them tell what you want to hear, even if they have to make it up.

Cobbian
Cobbian

Well, for a start, how about supporting hospitals in rural areas? The tax credits for those who donate to rural hospitals is a joke.  How about getting cell service and internet into those areas so people have more access to information and entertainment and more connectivity between each other and with those farther away; and make those areas more attractive for people to move to or stay?


We need the food.  We need to be willing to support where that food is grown and the people who are doing the work.  

Infraredguy
Infraredguy

There is cell and internet service in 90% of the US

RoadScholar
RoadScholar

And just think what the Medicaid cuts in the House HC plan will do !

AndyManUSA#45
AndyManUSA#45

Just a reiteration; what the media is doing everyday against Trump and the Executive Branch of our government is the assault, what happened in Montana is what real men call a "dust up."



AndyManUSA#45
AndyManUSA#45

@RoadScholar @AndyManUSA#45 At least I give it up after I break your teeth out. You monkey libs wanna grind people into dust, ruin them, put them in prison. 


How much do dentures cost, dude?

RoadScholar
RoadScholar

@JohnnyReb @MargaretHolt So instead of building the wall, why not upgrade the visa system with checks and balancing. This will affect more than Mexicans and Hispanics.

AndyManUSA#45
AndyManUSA#45

One week we extol the virtues of "free" trade, the next week we wonder why our rural areas are in ruins.


Year-End 2013 statistics released by the USDA Foreign Ag Service (USDA FAS) shows a 18.5% increase in overall forest products imports compared to the same period last year (Jan-December). 


Let's try putting our citizens to work, instead of everybody else in the world, just sayin....

JFMcNamara
JFMcNamara

Yes, Americans are lining up to do back breaking labor in 100 degree heat for minimum wage.

96% Americans have jobs and I see help wanted signs everywhere. Our citizens are at work...

jhgm63
jhgm63

@JFMcNamara Many of those jobs are piece rate pay - in some cases, they end up with less than minimum wage.

AndyManUSA#45
AndyManUSA#45

@JFMcNamara You might have missed it but the column is about rural Georgia, not decatur. Try to keep up.


And, if China wasn't undercutting prices of raw materials, we could pay a lot more than the minimum wage.


Support your country, for once.

JFMcNamara
JFMcNamara

Here is the unemployment rate from around Georgia. Unemployment is not high in any part of the state I have seen.

https://www.bls.gov/eag/eag.ga.htm

Folks couldn't get paid more because the farmer would buy machines. Migrants are cheaper and better than machines, but those farmers can't pay $50,000 plus benefits. It would be more bad, low wage jobs. I thought Trump voters didn't want those.

Americans would never take those jobs anyway especially when they can move to Decatur or Valdosta or Macon.

Try thinking a complex thought, for once.

AndyManUSA#45
AndyManUSA#45

@JFMcNamara Not every job entails picking fruit. Try opening a factory in the rural hood, manufacture some cars, boats, tangible goods. Put 600 people to work in Wilcox, it would turn the whole county around. The incentives necessary to make this happen? Less than what you pay in .gov benefits right now.


Duh.

JFMcNamara
JFMcNamara

@AndyManUSA#45 @JFMcNamara


Why would any company move to Wilcox when you can pay similar wages in Suburban Atlanta and have a replinishable labor pool,  better infrastructure (airport, rail, train, interstate), better schools, better restaurants, better strores, and better overall way of life.  We had to pay massive incentives to get a plant in LaGrange and it is close to Auburn, Atlanta and has a nice size city by itself.


Are you going to get 82 factories when every other rural area in America is trying to do the same thing?


Basically, is anything in your plan actually something that can be accomplished? That's what they have been trying and failing to do the last 20 years...

bu22
bu22

@JFMcNamara Go to Vermont or New Hampshire where there are very few illegals.  Americans do the jobs done by illegals in Texas or California or Georgia.

JFMcNamara
JFMcNamara

Ok, well let's be Vermont. I'm fine with that. Lets start Unions. Lets have socialized healthcare. To replicate Vermont, we would have to become a liberal paradise. As a liberal, I can deal with that.

The problem is that is also unrealistic. Republicans would never, ever allow us to do that. We chose free market. We are stuck with it.

bu22
bu22

@Starik @bu22 @JFMcNamara How about maids in hotels?  Busboys in restaurants?  People who aren't immigrants do those jobs up there.  They also pay more.

Starik
Starik

@bu22 @Starik @JFMcNamara I don't know about that; haven't visited Vermont in a long time. The farm work our immigrant workers do is hard, physical labor in the hot sun. Few natives are willing to do it.  

AndyManUSA#45
AndyManUSA#45

I'm dragging this one up top -


Just yesterday, Republicans in MT elected a man who assaulted a journalist that was asking him legitimate questions regarding a pertinent policy question, and then that man actually lied about the circumstances of the assault, and labeled the reporter as a "liberal" as a justification. 


Our government, and all of it's various agencies, from the irs down to the nsa, has been used to assault Republicans and has used the label "Conservatism" as justification. 85% of our nation's media have assaulted Republicans and have used the label "Conservatism" as justification. 


I ask; would you rather be thrown to the ground or have your whole entire life ruined by an overbearing and brutish government and media?


I'd take a fat lip compared to what Scooter Libby suffered. Tom Delay. Ted Stevens. The list is endless.


To hear you *^%@! whining about what happened to a little punk reporter for some odd reason does not illicit any sympathy what so ever from this camp.


By the way, I approve of our newest member of Congress, we need more like him.

Goddessofallisee
Goddessofallisee

Has anyone researched who actually owns the farm land here in Georgia - besides just in South Georgia?  Here in Wilkes we have Asian companies buying up land for chicken farms...and, it is my understanding from cousins in Clinch county that British and German corporations are buying up timber and farm land down in South Georgia.  The Asians DO NOT hire local people to run these large chicken houses (25,000 to 30,000 chickens per house)  The reason I ask is that if the land is foreign owned, it's possible that these international organizations are exploiting the less populated areas - and tax hungry county commissioners - for their own use.  A case in point would be the Saudi's buying land in California and Arizona to grow alfalfa...because...it's hard to grow alfalfa in the desert.  

Georgia has the largest amount of standing timber than any other State in the Union (our farm grows loblollies).  I am surrounded by timber land that is owned by foreign corporations OR...and this is odd...pension funds...that's right...pension funds.  

In other words...farming here in Georgia does not exactly promote good paying jobs or follow a traditional route - those that do follow a traditional route are called "hobby farms" with a lot of "pasture ornamentals" in the fields.  And - do some research on Driscoll's - and their berry growing practices using substrate farming and the "agrobot" - the strawberry picking machine that they are developing.  Within the next 5 years, farming will rely less and less on humans for harvesting these crops - and, the technology can be utilized to pick other crops.  So - cities would do well to find a way to accommodate people moving in looking for work...and, rural areas will become more...isolated.   It will be interesting to see what farming looks like in the next 5 years.

I know farming wasn't the point of your blog...but, many things factor in to the decline of rural communities.

bu22
bu22

@Goddessofallisee I don't know where you get your information from.  In the part of South Georgia my spouse is from, locals and descendants of locals own virtually all the land, not foreign corporations.  I think you are spreading urban legend about rural counties!

Eye wonder
Eye wonder

@bu22 --

Hillary may have been an  awful candidate, but she's a good woman and would have made an excellent, centrist president.

bu22
bu22

@Eye wonder @bu22 Hillary is an even more "deplorable" person than she was a candidate.  She bragged about putting rural people out of work.

PerryCD99
PerryCD99

Kyle, as a south GA resident, thank you for having the interest in this story and our part of the state and including it on your blog.

PerryCD99
PerryCD99

I think it would be great if the AJC would develop a regular column that covered the rest of GA outside of Metro ATL. Could focus on the good stories instead of just the plight issues.

TheJohnstons
TheJohnstons

A problem is the AJC has retreated from South Georgia.