Georgia Today: Why rural Georgia is emptying out — and why it could lose political power
Most of Georgia’s landmass is rural. But less than a quarter of the population lives in rural areas. And, according to the latest figures from the United States Census, that percentage is dropping as the state grows more diverse and more urbanized. With redistricting getting underway, some small-town Georgia officials worry their shrinking populations could also cost them political influence at the state Capitol.
Steve Fennessy: You're listening to Georgia Today; I'm Steve Fennessy. Most of Georgia's landmass is rural, but barely a fifth of the state's population lives there — and according to the latest census numbers, that percentage is shrinking. It's a trend that's been going on for decades, but in recent years has only accelerated. Georgia is now more heavily urbanized than ever before. The migration of young people to Atlanta and other big cities has some small-town residents worried that the rural Georgia they know is disappearing.
[News tape] GPB NEWS: Dozens of counties in South Georgia did not keep up with the 10.6% growth rate over the last 10 years, and it means that more than a few Republican-held districts could evaporate. That will inevitably lead to dramatic shifts in our politics.
Steve Fennessy: The hardest-hit rural communities are already struggling to attract new businesses, new workers and new housing. And nowhere is this more visible than in tiny Dooly County. For more, I'm joined by Joshua Sharpe. He's a Livingston Prize-winning reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Steve Fennessy: So, Dooly County; it's in Middle Georgia, it's bisected by I-75, and most of us know it as one of those places that we kind of speed past on our way to Florida, maybe stopping to get — gas up quick, but so what brought you there specifically?
Joshua Sharpe: Well, what brought me there was the latest U.S. Census numbers. The census numbers that came out a few weeks ago show that Dooly County had lost a quarter of its population in the past 10 years. And that was more than any other county in Georgia.
Steve Fennessy: A quarter. That's a lot, isn't it?
Joshua Sharpe: Yes. The top three counties are Dooly, Telfair and McIntosh, and each of them are around a quarter of their population. But Dooly took the top.
Steve Fennessy: And these are all rural counties; their primary economy is still based around agriculture?
Joshua Sharpe: Dooly County and Telfair particularly, a lot of agriculture, both of them, a lot of the jobs are local prisons. The thing that you notice first about Dooly County is sort of what's not in Dooly County, and that is there's not a lot of businesses, there's not a lot of restaurants. In McIntosh County, the story is a bit different. It's over on the coast.
Steve Fennessy: So when you went to Dooly County, what questions were you going to get answered?
Joshua Sharpe: I mean, I really had one big question, which is, why are folks leaving and where are they going? And the immediate answer that I kept getting was Houston County.
[News tape] At least 163,000 people call Houston County home — 24,000 more than a decade ago. People that have been here say they know why the city is desirable to newcomers. "It's a great place to raise a family. The schools are wonderful. The community is wonderful." The county chairman, Tommy Stalnaker, says that growth is an opportunity. "When you are growing, you've got lots of opportunities to deal with. When you're declining, you've got lots of problems to deal with."
Joshua Sharpe: There, they have Warner Robins Air Force Base, and they have a heavily lauded school district — the school district is all the time winning awards and is ranked. It is booming right now. It only — I think only 14 counties in the census had more growth by percentage than Houston County.
Steve Fennessy: So when you talk to residents of Dooly County and said, I'm here because Dooly County is No. 1 in the state in terms of the proportion of its residents who have left in the last 10 years, were they surprised?
Joshua Sharpe: I didn't find a single person who was surprised. Everybody immediately knew. I mean, even the chairman of the county commission, David Barron, when I spoke with him, he sounded deflated, you know, but he did not sound surprised. I spoke with several of the county commissioners, two of them in particular. Both told me that their own sons had left. The commissioner Eugene Cason has a son in Atlanta. And he told me that he often will try to make the case to his son to stay. He lives nowhere near any development, not even a stoplight. His son came home and they were hanging around the house at night and the father said to the son, hey, come outside, I want to show you something. So they go outside and the father says to the son, look up. In a place with no light pollution, the stars look a lot more fantastic. And the father turns to the son and says, can you see that in Atlanta?
Steve Fennessy: Well, let's talk a little bit about the numbers, because Dooly County's population now is, I think, what, 11,000? So why should we care that some tiny little county in the middle of Georgia is losing 25% of its people?
Joshua Sharpe: Well, for one thing, if you lose 25% of your people, that does not mean you lose 25% of your responsibility. You have to have a sheriff's office and you've got to pay for it. You have to have courts and you've got to pay for them. Public works, you've got to pay for that. And having more people means you have more tax base to pay for it. Having more people also means that you can get a better share of federal funding from myriad different programs.
[News tape] GPB NEWS: The census numbers are used for everything from building roads and bridges, to funding schools, to all sorts of funding mechanisms.
Joshua Sharpe: And this also can affect things like Head Start, block grants and community health programs. And I guess the idea behind this being, if you have fewer people, you have less need. But that doesn't always prove to be true.
Steve Fennessy: So, we have these rural counties that are losing populations, but of course then we have urban and suburban counties, especially around metro Atlanta, exploding in population. I mean, huge growth.
[News tape] 11Alive: Atlanta's population continues to rise. You see, you have so many people still moving to the metro Atlanta area, especially from places such as California, New York, Chicago.
Steve Fennessy: There's going to be political implications for that, especially in a state that went for a Democrat this past presidential election. So census data is what prompts redistricting. All these political boundaries are now going to be redrawn based upon what census numbers show.
[News tape] PBS NewsHour: For the first time in a decade, we are getting the most comprehensive look at exactly who is living in the U.S. and where they are living. All 331 million of us.
[News tape] GPB NEWS: That may lead to some different drawings of redistricting maps.
Steve Fennessy: As we see places like Dooly County lose a significant part of its population, what does that mean for redistricting?
Joshua Sharpe: Well, it may mean that Dooly County has less political power than it did before. Even the officials in Dooly County don't know, but they certainly are worried about what will happen.
Steve Fennessy: Next, more of my conversation with the AJC's Josh Sharpe and what some small-town Georgia officials are doing to try and attract new residents. This is Georgia Today.
Steve Fennessy: You're listening to Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. Joining me is Josh Sharpe, a reporter with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Josh, I want to talk a little bit now about the political implications here, because, you know, as these populations decline, there is more and more political strength that's focused on urban and suburban areas. So, to what degree do county commissioners, say, in Dooly County or in any rural county, who are seeing their populations decline are worried that that's going to mean that their influence in the halls of power, such as in Atlanta at the Gold Dome, are going to diminish in the same way.
Joshua Sharpe: That isn't something specifically that the Dooly County officials brought up to me. But I will say that I know that’s something that folks are concerned about. I spoke with Gerald Mixon, who's the planning director of the River Valley Regional Commission, which is, you know, like the Atlanta Regional Commission but for a 16-county region in south, middle, west Georgia — and 14 of those counties lost population. I spoke with state Sen. Blake Tillery, who's the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. You know, he told me that this is something that, the state has to have a role in this. And the ways that they can help these counties is by helping build them back up. You know, in the 2022 budget, there's a plan for $40 million for rural innovation and there's another $10 million for high-speed Internet.
[News tape] 11Alive: Gov. Kemp announcing Washington EMC and Conexon Connect are partnering to bring high-speed Internet to more than 12,000 homes and businesses in Middle Georgia.
Brian Kemp: "More work must be done to ensure that all Georgians have equal opportunities regardless of their ZIP code. And today we're making yet another exciting announcement that will build on our efforts to close the digital divide once and for all."
[News tape] 11Alive: Fifteen percent of Georgia households do not have an Internet subscription, and close to 40% live in areas where there is only one Internet provider.
Joshua Sharpe: Dooly County does have a big issue with access to broadband — so much so that during the pandemic, as other counties did, they had to park school buses with Wi-Fi all over the county so kids who were in their houses could have Internet to study, to learn.
Steve Fennessy: You know, a high-speed Internet connection is so vital, especially now with so many people working remotely, to not have that available where you live seems logically that that would be a real detriment to your economic development. This is a national issue. Rural counties across America are losing residents to urban and suburban areas because people need to go where the work is.
[News tape] PBS NewsHour: This is a map that the Census Bureau put up today. The brown spots are counties that have lost population in the last 10 years. That is much of the country and cities are the places that are seeing growth.
Joshua Sharpe: State Sen. Tillery has a couple of ideas. He says he would be for a tweak to the way we do the Georgia job tax credit incentive. You know, as it is now, there's a four-tier system. Each county is either Tier 1, 2, 3 or 4. In Tier 1, you get a $3,500 tax credit per job and it goes down from there. So your ranking on that is based on the highest unemployment, the lowest per capita income and the highest percentage of people under the poverty line. Now, it does not include whether or not your county is rural. And Tillery says maybe it should because rural counties have unique challenges. But some communities, you know, may have to ask themselves some tough questions. You know, does our tax base support our operations? And if not, are there opportunities for consolidation with someone else?
Steve Fennessy: We have 159 counties in Georgia.
Joshua Sharpe: Which is a lot.
Steve Fennessy: So when you talk about consolidation, I have to wonder, you know, can we conceive a future where maybe one of the answers is that we start to reduce the number of counties in this state?
Joshua Sharpe: You know, whether or not people want to do it would be a question. But we do have counties in the state where there are very few people there — counties in the state that have, you know, just a couple of thousand people. And they have the same concerns, some of the same constitutional responsibilities as Fulton County does. It may be that some of them end up deciding one day that their tax base and their other efforts aren't enough for it to make sense for them to run their local government efficiently and they could consolidate with the next-over county or something like that. To a lot of average folks these borderlines don't really mean much. But to the folks in Dooly who've got to figure out how to run the school district, to keep the roads paved, the sheriff's office and everything, to them it is scary because they're losing tax base. And this Dooly County pride that they thought that they were supposed to have, it hurts them to see that people don't want to be around.
Steve Fennessy: You spent time in Unadilla, Ga. Tell us about that little town.
Joshua Sharpe: Unadilla is a pretty little town. You know, it's a it's a farming community. You know, the folks there, that's what they do. That's what they historically have done. The thing that I immediately noticed is that it's a very small town and we're talking, you know, just no more than a couple of thousand people. So, you know, very much everybody knows everybody. You know, I'm walking around town a bit with County Commissioner Tony Lester. And, you know, people are hollering at him. Everybody knows him. And, that is one of the big things that — that you notice is the sense of community and place that means so much to these people. But also, you look around and you see a lot of places that, for whatever reason, fell into disrepair and are just sitting there vacant. Commissioner Lester told me that another issue with the houses is that some of these are old family homes that, you know, whenever it is that — that the elderly relative who was living there finally passed away, it ended up going into some sort of family trust where it's owned by multiple relatives. And for whatever reason, they haven't come together and decided what to do with it. Right now, it's just there are a lot of properties that are just sitting there like that. Walking around Unadilla, I met this woman, Maxine Atkinson, who's 59 and has lived there forever, and she told me that her granddaughter not too long ago moved to Cordele, which is south of Unadilla. And the reason that the granddaughter moved there was because she wanted to try living somewhere with more going on. And Cordele, compared to Unadilla, has a lot more going on. But then after a while, the grandmother got the call that she sounded as though she'd been expecting with the granddaughter saying, actually, we want to come back to Unadilla. What Maxine Atkinson knows is that to her, living in Unadilla is the best place to live because of the people who are there and the people and the memories that she has and — and the relationships that she has. But somehow, even though she was sitting, she somehow sat firmer. She repositioned herself in the chair, that she was literally staking her position: I love Unadilla. I'm not going anywhere.
Steve Fennessy: I know that you grew up in Waycross, Ga. Did it feel, in a way, familiar to you?
Joshua Sharpe: Downtown Unadilla felt very, very familiar to me. And that was because most of the storefronts were closed and, you know, the windows were you know, some of them were busted and some of them were boarded. And inside there, inside the closed storefronts, there's cobwebs and everything. And, you know, when I was a kid walking or hanging around in downtown Waycross, that's what it looked like.
Steve Fennessy: But what's the — I mean, I'm curious what the — the psychological impact is, you know, when you are living in a place that is quite — quite visibly dying and and as — as a young person, the impact that has on you in terms of your motivations for yourself.
Joshua Sharpe: For me personally, my experience growing up in Waycross, you know, when I asked myself the question after high school, “Where do I want to work? Do I want to work at the railroad or the hospital or the prison?” And I didn't. I wanted to be a journalist and there was not the option, you know, and I think a lot of my friends had that same thing happen to them and ended up moving. I don't know, a lot of people would prefer to live somewhere like Dooly County, but they don't because of their work. So certainly that's one thing that they're hoping could change: As more industries allow people to work from home, people could come back.
Steve Fennessy: My thanks to Josh Sharpe. U.S. Census numbers show the top 10 Georgia House and Senate districts that lost the most population over the last decade were all rural. Now, rural Georgia has traditionally been home to many of the state's powerbrokers. But as their populations continue to shrink while Atlanta, Savannah, Augusta and other metro areas grow, some of these rural state lawmakers may soon be struggling to hang onto their districts. Gov. Brian Kemp has called for a special session at the Capitol to redraw congressional and state legislative districts.
[News tape] 11Alive: The state legislature will meet to address redistricting for the members of the Georgia House and Senate, as well as the state's U.S. Congressional districts, a process that normally happens once a decade when the census is released. The session will also address an amendment to the state tax code and ratify executive orders issued by Gov. Kemp earlier this year regarding fuel taxes. That special session will reconvene on Nov. 3.
Steve Fennessy: For more Georgia Today, go to GPB.org. I'm Steve Fennessy. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. And don't forget to leave us a review on Apple. Jess Mador produced this episode. Our engineers are Jesse Nighswonger and Jahi Whitehead. Thanks for listening. See you next week.