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Rural Georgia lagging rest of state in quality-of-life indicators

Rural Georgia is suffering from failing schools, inadequate health care and lack of economic opportunity, conditions that make politicians’ boasts the state is No. 1 for doing business ring hollow. That’s the message Georgia lawmakers heard this week from experts who have been studying the plight of the Peach State’s rural communities for years.

“With the exception of 11 or 12 counties, much of Georgia is in a very distressed situation,” David Bridges, interim director of the Georgia Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovation, told members of the House Rural Development Council Wednesday. “If we’re going to be the No.-1 state for business, we must define the state as 159 counties, not 11 or 12.”

It’s a message lawmakers have been hearing since 2017, when House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, created the council to look for ways to improve rural Georgia’s economy. Wednesday’s meeting marked a reboot of the council after a period of inactivity with new cochairmen and many new members. “We want to do things to make rural Georgia stronger, to make people want to live there,” said Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, one of those new co-chairs. The 2020 Census highlighted the heart of rural Georgia’s dilemma: a loss in population. It showed that 68 of the state’s 159 counties have suffered population declines since 2010.

The populations of three counties – Dooly, Telfair and McIntosh – have fallen by more than 20% during the last decade. Numerically, Dougherty County led the way, with a population decline of 8,775.

Rural Georgia’s population also is aging. Georgians ages 65 and older now make up 19% of the population in rural counties, a figure that is projected to increase to 22% by 2030. With that older population comes greater demand for government services, said David Tanner, associate director for state services and decision support at the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government.

“Older people retiring in North Georgia is putting more pressure on health programs,” he said. However, the greatest disparity between rural Georgia and the urban counties surrounding Atlanta, Augusta, Savannah and other Georgia cities is educational attainment, said Charlie Hayslett, a retired public relations consultant who writes a blog titled “Trouble in God’s Country.”

“It may be the single biggest problem affecting the dynamics of rural Georgia,” he said.

If metro Atlanta were a state, Hayslett said, it would rank second to Massachusetts in the percentage of the adult population with at least a four-year college degree. Georgia’s other 147 counties would rank second from the bottom in that category, behind only Mississippi, he said.

The 12 counties in metro Atlanta also have outstripped the other 147 in enrollment in University System of Georgia colleges and universities, he said.

Bridges, who also serves as president of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, said the coronavirus pandemic is worsening rural Georgia’s plight in some ways, including putting more stress on the region’s workforce.

But Tanner said there is a silver lining to COVID-19. He said the movement of Georgians out of rural areas appears to have slowed since the pandemic struck, with the increase of working from home.

He said improving broadband connectivity in rural communities would go a long way toward encouraging that trend.

“If [rural areas] have great broadband they can attract the remote worker,” Tanner said.

Bridges said reducing government regulation and bureaucracy also would help speed help to rural Georgia. While he praised Gov. Brian Kemp’s creation this year of a Rural Innovation Fund to help local elected officials and economic development leaders create jobs, he said the $40 million initiative appears to be tied up in red tape.

“We have no idea how to get our hands on that money or what the process and rules are,” he said.

Bridges conceded that solving the challenges facing rural Georgia will be difficult.

“The problems are deeply rooted. They can’t be fixed overnight,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t acknowledge them and address them.”

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