Rural Georgia Fares Poorly in the 2017 Distressed Communities Index

This morning, the Economic Innovation Group released its second Distressed Communities Index. Distressed areas are characterized by a variety of factors, including high levels of poverty and joblessness, low levels of educational attainment, and little-to-no economic growth. The years included in the 2017 index are 2011 to 2015.

One thing we can see quite clearly on the report’s map of zip codes is that if a person lives in a suburb or a wealthy part of an urban area, the community is almost assuredly thriving, but if a person resides in the inner city or in a rural area, the community is probably struggling. Viewing Georgia, it’s easy to spot where Atlanta, Columbus, Macon and Warner Robins, Augusta, Athens, and Savannah are located (though some of the prospering zip codes for the Columbus area are in Alabama and some of the prospering zip codes for the Augusta area are in South Carolina). Other blue areas include Jekyll Island, St. Simons Island, Albany, Statesboro, and Sautee-Nacoochee.

As pointed out by The Wall Street Journal, “a small number of high-growth cities and towns are fueling U.S. growth and masking economic struggles in decaying industrial towns, swaths of the rural South and other areas of the country.” According to the EIG’s report, one in six Americans lives in an economically distressed area, though more than half of those areas are located in the South. For Georgia, this works out to 25.9 percent of residents living in distressed communities, with 19.6 percent of residents living in prospering communities.

The issue is bipartisan, with distressed communities being represented by both parties. However, the U.S. House of Representatives is the one exception: When looking at the most prosperous areas by congressional district, 67 percent are represented by Republicans. Georgia skews more pointedly this way, where only three of our fourteen districts are “in the blue,” and all are represented by Republicans — GA-11 (Barry Loudermilk), GA-6 (Karen Handel), and GA-7 (Rob Woodall). The three most distressed districts are all along Georgia’s Black Belt, represented by one Democrat and two Republicans — GA-2 (Sanford Bishop), GA-8 (Austin Scott), and GA-12 (Rick Allen).

The EIG’s report follows recently-released Census data for 2016, showing that while poverty statistics of Americans overall are improving, 22 percent of African-Americans live in poverty, making African-American children three times more likely than white children to be poor. Of course, there are other indicators for poverty as well, namely education. Axios points out, “Half of adults living in distressed zip codes are attempting to find gainful employment in the modern economy armed with only a high school education at best.” For further reading on how health care, economics, and education are affecting the rural parts of our state, I highly suggest the blog Trouble in God’s Country.

Likewise, there are three recent health care pieces worth reading, two from the Atlanta Journal-Constitition and one from Georgia Health News, on how rural hospitals are under enormous strain. First, James Saltzer reports that the tax credit offered by the state legislature in 2016 has not yet been the shot in the arm for the hospitals it was hoped to be, though the bill’s sponsor, Geoff Duncan, said the credit was not meant to solve all the problems; rather it was merely meant to be one of the tools available to help rural hospitals. Secondly, Ariel Hart and Tamar Hallerman point out that the revival of the PPACA repeal push has prevented Congress from addressing changes to programs on which rural hospitals rely to stay afloat, even as deadlines are approaching this week. These include Disproportionate Share Hospitals (DSH) cuts, Children’s Health Insurance Program (PeachCare, which insures half of Georgia children) reauthorization, Low-Volume Adjustment funding extension, and Cost-Sharing Reductions through PPACA.

Finally, Lauren Miller and Andy Weber at Georgia Health News look at how the closure of a rural hospital basically kills a town, though the likelihood is high that the town was already struggling when the hospital began to falter. Many factors lead to the closure of rural hospitals, but this map shows that the majority of closures since 2010 have happened in southern states that elected not to expand Medicaid under PPACA. This is because some programs that were available to these hospitals before PPACA was passed nearly a decade ago have changed or will decrease (like DSH) because the federal law supposed that states would expand Medicaid.

Last April, Speaker Ralston named members to a newly-formed House Rural Development Council. (Governor Deal had an appointed Rural Development Council, though the website seems to have been abandoned in 2013.) Undoubtedly, the House’s council will take both of these reports to heart as they consider the dire need for economic development, health care access, and education opportunities in Georgia’s rural counties. However, these reports only diagnose the symptoms of the problem without offering solutions. Solutions, therefore, are the council’s charge. Two things to ponder: How do we close the gap on health outcomes, that sees folks in these distressed communities living a full five years less than those in thriving areas? How do we encourage job growth, when companies want to move to areas with educated workforces, vibrant transportation, and reliable internet service, things many of these communities lack?

The Rural Development Council has its work cut out for it. Since its first meeting in May, the council has been on a tour of the state, and all documents from those meetings can be found on their website. The first report of the council is expected to be presented in December in Milledgeville.


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