A front-page headline in the Atlanta Journal Constitution caught my eye last week: In Pierce County, hard times and a push to “secede” from Georgia.

A sign of the times, I figured. When working out differences like adults seems a thing of the past, pitching a fit and threatening to take your toys and go home is par for the course. After all, activists in Texas and California have made noise in recent years about seceding from the United States, and Californians will vote this November on a measure to try and split that state into three.

Reading this news from South Georgia, I’m struck by the irony that Pierce County Republicans are pushing this. (It started as a tongue-in-cheek idea born of frustration, but 27% of the county’s GOP voters responded “yes” to the question: Should the counties south of Macon join together to “form the 51st state of South Georgia?”) Such action would require approval by the state legislature and US Congress. But, it’s the reasoning I find interesting, such as:

  • The head of the county Republican Party complains rural Georgia has been ignored by high-speed internet providers. (Won’t the marketplace sort this out?)
  • The story references a GOP-backed plan raised this past legislative session for the state to pay to move people to rural counties, bolster small hospitals, and grow business opportunities. (Republicans asking “big government” to intervene and subsidize where people live?)
  • The article quotes supporters who say a new legislature representing only counties south of Macon could “more effectively fight to lower farming costs and bolster the diminishing job prospects faced by rural Georgians.” (It’s not clear where resources would come from to provide such programs – especially while severing ties to prosperous, revenue-generating counties of North Georgia. But, could it be taxes?)
  • For all the talk about “states’ rights” among conservatives, it’s evident there’s nothing magical about the state as a political subdivision. (When things don’t go our way at higher levels, we imagine local control to be the answer. The compromise we like most is that which serves us best.)

Facing diminishing economic prospects, members of the party of less government are demanding a state solution to their woes. (It’s a dissonance driven by angst not unlike the sharp turn towards protectionism animating the Trump base of the GOP.) It would be easy to label this selective application of principles as hypocrisy. But, that’s unfair. The current struggles and uncertain future facing rural Georgia – and the Southeast – are real. Starkly real.

I first wrote about the Economic Innovation Group’s (EIG) Distressed Communities Index (DCI) in a Like the Dew piece in 2016. EIG has since published another DCI report in 2017. Using a mix of seven metrics reflecting economic wellbeing, the DCI ranks zip codes and counties into one of five classes of economic health. From best to worst, those categories are prosperous, comfortable, mid-tier, at-risk, and distressed.

Overall, the southeast US is awash in distress. But, zooming in on Georgia, it’s also clear why rural Georgians feel a north-south divide. While, in the northern US, distressed communities are largely found in inner cities, the South’s most distressed places are almost exclusively rural.

Economic Indicators for Georgia via EIG.org
Economic Indicators for Georgia via EIG.org

In Southeast Georgia, Pierce County is faring better than its nearest neighbors. But, with a DCI score of 64.7 (out of 100), the county is on the distressed end of the scale. Distressed communities (the deepest reds on the map) dominate south and eastern Georgia. And, you don’t need dots to locate larger cities, like Atlanta, Athens, Augusta, Columbus, Savannah, and Brunswick, which are easily distinguished blocks of blue prosperity.

There is ample support among EIG’s research for the despair voiced by people in Pierce County and elsewhere in South Georgia. To the north, Metropolitan Atlanta’s sprawling blue footprint dominates, stretching from the Alabama line to Athens. The southern counties, by contrast, are a sea of brick-red hues, dotted sparsely by blue oases around Albany, Macon, Savannah, and Brunswick.

(It’s easy to become distracted by the correlation between the colors on the DCI map and the electoral map from 2016. But, let’s hold that thought for now.)

The DCI is bad enough news for rural areas across the southeastern US. But, things are even worse than that.

Earlier this year, EIG released another report, Escape Velocity: How Elite Communities Are Pulling Away in the 21st Century Race for Jobs, Businesses, and Human Capital. The report confirms, with hard data, what we already know from experience – the rich are getting richer. Already prosperous communities are growing businesses and creating jobs at a far faster rate than less prosperous ones. On the “tails” side of the coin, at-risk and distressed communities are shedding businesses and jobs at an alarming rate. Analyzing data from 25,500 zip codes nationwide, the report’s authors wrote:

Hit badly by two recessions and bypassed by two recoveries, the country’s most distressed places have been nothing short of hollowed this century. An age of unrivaled prosperity for thousands of communities and tens of millions of Americans has taken root alongside what amounts to a deep and sustained modern depression in the communities that house many of the country’s least advantaged citizens.

That’s right. Depression. Frustrated rural Georgians are right: the world is leaving them behind. Counties near our larger cities are prospering at their expense. But, citizens of these forgotten places are wrong to blame their woes entirely on lawmakers in Atlanta. It’s false hope to place their bet on retreating into their already failing world.

I’m a liberal. I believe government has a role in maintaining a healthy economy and a level playing field. But, I also understand the folly of swimming against the tide of fundamental change.

As a progressive, I’ll admit we are sometimes so caught up in the intrinsic elegance of our aspirations, that we ignore on-the-ground realities right in front of us. But, too often, conservatives cling to past reality (and even imagined reality) long past the point the ideas they’re holding onto are practical. The world changes. And, while we can shape some aspects and preserve others, we have to adapt to things larger than our own desires.

During my decades in business, I developed a philosophy I used often with employees and colleagues. Leaving corporate America in 2015, I carried that philosophy I called “Breathe Water” into my private consulting practice. The premise is simple: “To tread water is to survive. To breathe water is to thrive.”

I spent my career in the Information Technology (IT) field, where globalization radically changed everything with lightning speed. Programming jobs that didn’t even exist when I was born at the end of the 50s had gone from high-demand, high-pay to being commodity skills easily moved offshore to lower-cost countries. And, by the time I retired in 2015, automation was eliminating those jobs even in those parts of the world.

I was a journalism major, not a technologist. So, I felt blessed just to have a well-paying job. I carved out a nice career. But, I could see the writing on the wall. With employees who were angry, frustrated, and disillusioned by training newly hired workers in India to take their jobs, I was direct and honest. You can hold to your notion that you are a programmer. And, you can try your best to be the last one out of the building when the lights go out. But, the lights will still go out. This is a rising tide, and you are treading water. You cannot tread forever. To survive, at some point, you have to dive deep, go into the water, and learn to breathe. Learn to thrive.

For these young people in a fast-changing profession, thriving meant accepting their new skill set… They had to embrace their ability to work collaboratively with a global workforce, spread through nations, cultures, and time zones around the planet. It wasn’t what they studied in school, but it was what the marketplace now demanded.

Rural communities are not dying today because of some government plot, nor for any centralized neglect. Rural communities as we know them are fading into the countryside landscape because fundamental technology changes have transformed our economy and created new expectations for what younger workers and consumers value and, therefore, what businesses chase. We’ve built physical places hardwired to how things used to be, and it’s stubbornly resistant to change.

Millennials (young people born from the early 1980s to the late 90s) have shown a sustained desire to live in more urban settings. They favor walking, biking, and transit over the prospect of long commutes by car. They enjoy living in communities where work, play, and home are enjoyed in close proximity. But, this phenomenon is not limited to their generation, as even Baby Boomers and Generation X are showing a growing interest in such places.

Meanwhile, globalization and technology have made people, jobs, and goods more mobile. In a growing number of industries and professions, one can readily live just about anywhere and buy goods from anywhere. Family farms are a thing of the past (though a growing appreciation for organics, sustainability, and locally grown food may change that). Going to work at the local plant where your father and grandfather worked is no longer a prominent thread of the American fabric.

The anxiety of rural South Georgia is understandable. The despair is real. But, their future cannot be found in the past. Or, maybe it can. Human beings have always adapted. But, the speed with which we’re being asked to do so today is pushing our human limits. And, the Escape Velocity report suggests those already struggling will only suffer more if we keep doing what we’re doing.

As an aging bicyclist who’s carrying a little more around my midsection than 15 years ago, I know what it’s like to finally surrender and fall off the back of the pack, discouraged and defeated, left to find my lonely way home. But, when we’re all in this together, that’s not how you do it.

In a group ride, when cyclists are working together, the stronger ones take an active role maintaining a sustainable pace for the group. Everyone benefits from riding in the draft, even when weaker riders take pulls at the front. The entire team moves faster together than anyone could alone.

EIG’s work is data-rich, but not overly prescriptive about solutions to circumstances they are highlighting. That’s actually a good thing, for we need to recognize and understand problems together without fighting over ideological fixes.

In their conclusion, authors of the Escape Velocity paper wrote: “The findings presented here underscore the need for a new embrace of localism and a place-based lens for our national policymaking.”

So, in that sense, people of Pierce County are on the right track to seek a stand-apart view of their situation. But, it would be unwise to separate themselves permanently from the pack. As EIG researchers concluded:

Each region and every community is a node in the vast neural network that is the U.S. economy. The healthier that network and the more robust the connections among its nodes, the stronger the foundations of American prosperity. Our task now is to harness the immense power and energy of our strongest communities to help revitalize the network as a whole.

The political map divides us today, much like the DCI map, into blue cities and red rural communities. Yet, that divide runs counter to everything stated above as to how we maintain a vital economy for all regions and every citizen. If we can just set aside, for a moment, our preconceived fixes, perhaps we can make progress by simply acknowledging together the measurable ways what we’re doing now is not working. A state divided against itself cannot stand.

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Image: Economic Indicators for Georgia via the Economic Innovation Group (EIG.org).

Maurice Carter

Maurice Carter

Maurice Carter is President and Founder of Breathe-Water, LLC, where he uses community building, storytelling, consulting, and social media to enable businesses, non-profits, and communities to understand and harness forces for positive change. An Atlanta native living in Covington, GA, Maurice is an active community volunteer, a freelance columnist, and an advocate for causes that build community and promote thoughtful responses to the opportunities and challenges of our day.