This week’s Courier Herald column:
This is the second in a series. The introductory column can be found here.
During the 1980’s, the Director of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension Service Tal DuVall published a study on “Two Georgias”, highlighting the growing disparity between a prosperous and growing metro Atlanta, and a mostly rural “other Georgia”. It was not well received by then Governor Joe Frank Harris. Enough so that Mr. DuVall wasn’t around long enough to publicize his ideas. That credit is generally given to Doug Bachtel.
It’s never been politically popular to acknowledge that there is more than one Georgia. Whether standing in downtown Atlanta on Peachtree Street, a farm outside of Dublin Georgia, a beach on Tybee Island, or tying up to a dock in Blue Ridge, we’re all presumed to be politically equal. From the perspective of those that govern us, we are all equal in the eyes of the state.
Economically and politically, the various regions of Georgia can only be considered equal when viewed through the distortion of a political lens. The economic disparity can be proven through statistical data of income and sales tax receipts, and through the distribution of Medicaid and SNAP dollars. The political disparities often change with the topic, depending on how the legislators within each region choose to caucus on an issue.
Georgia politics is not the same as it was thirty years ago when we debated and pretended to ignore that there were two Georgias. We’re now a state of ten million people and growing. We’re the eighth largest state in the country, and in less than a generation we’ll likely be the fifth. The political party in power in statewide offices and with near super-majorities in the legislature is different.
We’re no longer a state of two Georgias. In political and economic reality, there are at least five Georgias.
We’re going to break these down, but it is first important to understand this: There are few neat lines that can be drawn on a map to represent exactly where the lines are that divide us within our one state. They move a bit issue to issue, and based on population and job migration the economic lines are ever changing. Consider this discussion conceptual rather than trying to place neat boundaries of where one Georgia begins and another one ends.
Instead of two Georgias, we now have two Atlantas. Those in “other Georgia” often refer to Atlanta as one group of urban folks, out of touch with the realities of the rest of the state. To look at Atlanta – now a sprawling region of more than half the state’s population – as a homogenous region with similar interests and economics would be a serious failure in understanding contemporary Georgia Politics.
There is an urban core of Atlanta, and there is then suburban Atlanta. The core is largely non-white, has some significant challenges with respect to income mobility, and votes largely Democratic. Much of suburban Atlanta is economically prosperous, has access to quality schools, and votes Republican. At least, for now.
The urban core is no longer easily defined as ITP – inside the perimeter in Atlanta speak. The aging of housing stock in the original suburbs near and outside I-285 along with the export of poor families from the city center via Section 8 housing has spread this core to the south, east, and west. There are also strong pockets representing this core in Cobb and Gwinnett counties – viewed by many to be largely white, wealthy, and GOP. Demographic realities show these counties to be filled with the haves and have-nots, living almost side by side.
Suburban Atlanta spreads in all directions; to many counties where many longtime residents still believe they are in rural Georgia. These counties are growing, and many residents believe their counties and cities are self-sufficient and tax donors to the state. Some are right. Others believe the state is supposed to send their counties money to cover growth in demand for local services because the low property taxes they moved to find are a suburban birthright. This view is one of the pivotal struggles that is key to solving problems under Georgia’s gold dome every year, as up to 40% of Georgians can be said to be in this Georgia.
“Other Georgia” now must be divided into three Georgias. The Mountains, the Coast, and South Georgia.
Coastal Georgia now has many economic similarities of suburban Atlanta. There is growth. There is traffic. There are increasing real estate prices. Many of the challenges are about managing success. Those on Georgia’s coast will achieve more political power when they realize many of their desired policies have similarities with suburban Atlantans. Together, the two regions would generally form a legislative majority.
The Mountain region probably includes some of the flatlands of the piedmont in Eastern Georgia. This area is rural, and has issues in common with South Georgia on items such as rural healthcare and access to broadband. These are problems of density and economies of scale. These areas do generally have a sense of economic and population growth. Much of South Georgia does not.
The difference can be seen in how the areas diverge in their politics. Mountain Georgia is staunchly Republican with a strong libertarian streak. Symbolized by the good folks of Dade county who tried to secede from the state a few decades ago, they are fiercely independent and shun government intervention whenever possible.
South Georgia, specifically in the Southwest corner, has Georgia’s only Democratic Congressman not representing urban Atlanta. The growth problem is one of population loss. These are proud people, but they know they need some help, even if it’s from the Government.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll take a look at each region in depth. Their strengths, opportunities, and challenges will be discussed. And hopefully, when this series is over, we’ll have a better understanding of how the five Georgia’s can work together as one.
Charlie Harper is the publisher of GeorgiaPol.com and the Executive Director of PolicyBEST, which focuses on policy issues of Business Climate, Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation.