Gauging the Gaps Between Atlanta and Rural Georgia

Staff Report From Georgia CEO

Wednesday, May 1st, 2024

Charlie Hayslett, a former political reporter from the Atlanta Journal and a public relations, public affairs and communications management consultant, delivered a thought-provoking address to the GMA Board of Directors during its meeting in Perry on April 26.

Drawing from his acclaimed blog "Trouble in God's Country," Hayslett provided insights on the complex realities facing rural Georgia, highlighting the stark differences between the 12 county Atlanta region and “Notlanna,” the other 147 counties in the state.

Hayslett began by delving into Georgia's shifting population dynamics, particularly in rural areas. He highlighted a significant decline in Georgia’s rural population over the past few decades, which has precipitated a cascade of economic and social challenges. Notably, he revealed a startling statistic: while in 1994 only 12 counties experienced more deaths than births, this number surged to 108 counties by 2022, reaching a peak of 124 counties in 2021.

Hayslett then touched on Georgia's economic transformation, highlighting the state’s remarkable growth between 1980 and 2000, during which per capita income surged, moving Georgia 13 places higher to 25th in national rankings. “Georgia made remarkable progress... but then we began to surrender all those gains... we lost virtually everything that we had gained during that period," Hayslett said, noting that since 2000 Georgia has plummeted 14 spots to 39th place by 2020.

Moving to education, Hayslett unveiled a concerning trend in college enrollment patterns, particularly in rural areas. “Between 2006 and 2020, the 147 Notlanna counties went from sending about 15% more students to Georgia’s public colleges” than the Atlanta region did, “to sending nearly 16% fewer,” he said, adding that this 30-point shift underscored the challenges facing rural education access and attainment. To illustrate this point, he pointed out that in 2020, 83 counties failed to send a single freshman to Georgia Tech, one of Georgia’s premier public universities, underscoring the challenges in rural education access.

Shifting gears to healthcare, Hayslett underscored the growing divide between urban and rural communities in terms of population health. While Atlanta witnessed improvements in premature death rates, rural Georgia faced a concerning deterioration. “Premature death rates have improved in Atlanta and deteriorated in non-Atlanta... the gap between Atlanta and Notlanta widened from 15.8% in 1994 to 38% in 2022,” he said. Hayslett emphasized the urgent need for targeted interventions to address healthcare access and outcome disparities across the state.

Lastly, Hayslett contrasted the gubernatorial races of 1990 and 2022 to illustrate evolving political landscapes, using Towns County as a microcosm. In 1990, Towns County overwhelmingly favored Miller, a democrat, with a 73.5% vote, reflecting the political dynamics of the time. Fast forward to 2022, and the county showed a seismic shift, throwing its support behind Kemp, a republican, with an 82.5% vote.

In his concluding remarks, Hayslett underscored the dire challenges facing rural Georgia, from economic decline and widening political and cultural divisions between Atlanta and the rest of the state. “I think we're at a point where the state almost has to say, not almost, has to say, that we've really got two states, and we've got to address the challenges in those regions very differently.”