Bob Dylan once told us that “the times they are a changing.’” This was never more apparent than on May 23, 2007 when researchers found that, for the first time in human history, more people were living in urban areas than rural areas. These shifting demographics were centuries in the making as higher wages and increased economic opportunities have been bringing people into cities since the Industrial Revolution began in Europe in the late 1700s. The United States passed the 50 percent urban threshold in the early 20th century and as of 2010 all but four states are majority urban.
Despite the South’s reputation for cow milking, hay chewing, and frog gigging, every southern state is majority urban except for Mississippi. Georgia leads the pack, with 75 percent of its population living in urban areas. A major reason why urban areas are filling up in Georgia is the influx of people moving in. Georgia added 1.5 million residents between 2000 and 2010. Our 19 percent growth rate beat every other state in the Deep South except for North Carolina. Growth numbers dipped during the Great Recession, but they are reportedly back to normal as people from all over the country are moving in for the sunny weather, the plentiful jobs, and probably not the Braves.
However, like the economic growth figures touted by the Obama Administration, the aggregate population growth figures obscure a deep inequality of where the growth is distributed. Georgia is not growing quickly; urban Georgia is growing quickly. New data from the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute shows that most of Georgia is not desirable for people coming into the state. Here are some of the highlights.
- Two-thirds of the population growth is occurring in six of Georgia’s 159 counties. Five of these counties are in metro Atlanta and the sixth is Chatham County, home of Savannah.
- Half of the population growth has been concentrated in just three counties—Fulton, Gwinnett, and Forsyth.
- Since 2010, nearly half of Georgia’s counties have experienced population decreases. Most of the counties are in rural Georgia, particularly South Georgia.
- In about two dozen counties, the population is decreasing at a rate of more than 10 percent.
So it would seem that Georgia is fitting into the worldwide urbanization trend all too well. Similar to the global trend, rural Georgia is less attractive because it does not provide the high quality of living standard that urban Georgia does. 91 Georgia counties are considered to be in “persistent poverty.” 84 of these counties are rural and most of them are below the Fall Line. They score lower on indexes measuring health, education, literacy, and public safety than counties in metro Atlanta.
Metro Atlanta’s relative population boom might signal a shifting political balance in the state. Urbanites are known for supporting public transportation, something that Republicans in the General Assembly (who are mostly from rural Georgia) have found it difficult to address so far. As more State House and State Senate seats are pulled into the traffic nightmare that is Fulton County, Democrats might see newfound gains.
Democrats might also stand to benefit from the changing racial demographics that are coming with population growth. The Carl Vinson Institute calculated the number of years it will take for the White, Black, and Hispanic populations to double at 117 years, 28 years, and 9 years, respectively. Furthermore, when they compared the Hispanic population’s relative youth (median age of 25) to the aging White population (median age of 40), researchers determined that Georgia will probably become a majority-minority state by 2030.
Democrats are optimistic that Georgia’s growing Black and Hispanic populations will help flip the state blue in November. A recent poll had Donald Trump being viewed unfavorably by 88 percent of Black voters and 87 percent of Hispanic voters. Even worse for Trump, three of the four Georgia counties that he lost in the Republican Primary were in metro Atlanta. If the people that migrate into these counties in the future also oppose Trump and his wacky brand of conservatism, Georgia Republicans may have to soften their right wing stances to compete for votes.
As Nate Silver reminds us, demographics are not necessarily destiny in politics. However, they are a good indicator when evaluating the change that population growth is bringing to Georgia. In the near future, political power will rest in the hands of a population that is more urban and more diverse. The old days of the county unit system and a rural legislature are long gone. The days of a majority white electorate might be numbered as well. Georgia’s political parties will need to adjust accordingly.