Torpy at Large: Propping up the boonies, Atlanta’s thankless burden

AT&T has selected Georgia to test a new way to distribute high-speed internet. Project AirGig is being tested in an undisclosed part of rural Georgia. Project AirGig could someday deliver "gigabit" speeds with no added infrastructure. The technology can be attached to existing power lines in minutes.

A bill proposed in the state House would require city dwellers like myself to pony up extra when watching movies on Netflix so they can run high-speed internet out to the boonies.

It turns out that it's not worth it for companies to deliver broadband out to these far-flung localities. The free market system, the cornerstone of conservative thought on business, is working against them.

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You hear it all the time. When there are complaints that there are so few supermarkets in the inner-city, you’ll hear explanations that those areas just can’t support the businesses. The economics just aren’t there. It’s the free market, dummy.

Advocates for rural folk say that 16 percent of Georgians — those who you have to pass scenic forests or bucolic fields to visit — don’t have access to the internet, which is so very 1995. It’s like 1.6 million poor souls are left without a good download.

The argument is that these faraway outposts, which have been drying up and losing jobs and population for decades, will continue to lag further behind if they don't get a series of, um, governmental investments. One could be unkind and call these handouts. But let's be nice.

"You can't retain a business — much less attract a new business — if they don't have access to data and access to the internet," said state Rep. Jay Powell, who sponsored the legislation. He also co-chairs the House Rural Development Council, which is a committee charged with figuring out ways to make it so high school and college grads don't spend their graduation money on bus tickets out of town.

Powell, a Republican from Camilla, population 5,170, is chairman of the powerful House Ways & Means Committee. The fact that Powell, a lawyer from far below the Gnat Line, is a big hitter in the House is no oddity. Of the 38 House committee chairmanships, 19 are run by non-metro pols, 12 are metro Atlanta pols and seven are ‘tweeners, meaning they come from semi-metro places such as Savannah or Cartersville or Columbus.

It’s likewise in the Senate, where 12 chairmanships are from the sticks, 11 are from metro Atlanta and five are ‘tweeners. The Senate figures are deceiving, however, because they put four urban and ‘tweener Democrats in charge of do-little committees.

That the boondocks are so overrepresented in the power structure is not new. For years, Democratic House Speaker Tom Murphy and his merry band of rural cronies ran the show. And until courts overturned the scheme in 1962, the state’s “county unit system” made it so that rural voters, who were less than a third of the state’s population, controlled 59 percent of the power. Metro Atlanta controlled about 12 percent.

Georgia state Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, is sponsoring a rural broadband bill. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

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For years, I spent time roving Georgia for stories and discovered that it was an article of faith among rural residents that Atlanta was a sponge when it came to sopping up state resources. Rural and small-town residents were hardworking, salt-of-the earth Americans. Atlantans were, well, something else.

But when you come down to it, there is a sponge in Georgia — and it ain’t the Big City.

Back in 2009, researchers from Georgia State University found that the 10-county metro Atlanta region had 43 percent of the state's population and generated 53 percent of the state's taxable income. That area contributed 51 percent of state revenue but got back just 37 percent of state expenditures. In essence, each metro Atlantan cut a check for $500 each year for every resident elsewhere.

MAY 8, 2017 — City Hall in downtown Fort Gaines, Ga. Ten years ago, Clay County was doing well. Unemployment was low. But today the county has the highest unemployment rate in the state and no longer even has its own high school. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

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“It’s a story line that the takers live in urban areas and the hard workers live out there propping us up,” said state Sen. Nan Orrock, an Atlanta Dem who has been in the Legislature 32 years. “The question of who’s the rider and who’s pulling the wagon is so backward.”

Another interesting analysis came from Charlie Hayslett, the owner of a communications/policy firm who is writing a book about the widening metro/rural divide in Georgia. He found that the 12-county metro Atlanta region had barely 46 percent of the state’s 10 million-plus residents but paid nearly twice the federal taxes ($20.4 billion) of those in the other 147 counties ($10.5 billion). Not only that, but metro Atlanta residents consumed only 38 percent of the Medicaid payments and SNAP benefits (food stamps) received in Georgia.

Basically, if you lift metro Atlanta out of Georgia, you’re left with Mississippi.

DECEMBER 11, 2017 — Many of the stores in downtown Lumpkin are closed or vacant. Stewart County in South Georgia was singled out in a recent U.S. Census Bureau report as having one of the lowest median household incomes in the nation at $20,882. A small rural county with about 5,700 residents, Stewart also has one the highest percentages of families living in poverty at 38.4 percent. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

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Hayslett, who testified before the Rural Redevelopment Committee, has spend decades working on projects across the state, and said he has “watched it deteriorate in slow motion.”

Metro Atlanta, he said, “has become the intergalactic black hole that is pulling in all educated people and economic development.”

According to a recent GSU study, rural counties had just 22 percent of the state’s jobs in 2014. Also, metro Atlanta and the state’s 13 “hub cities” saw 90 percent of all job growth from 2007 to 2014.

“Atlanta is the golden goose,” Hayslett told me. “There ought to be more appreciation of the economic output (of the metro area) and how it impacts the rest of the state. But that will be a tough sell.”

He said he is pleased to see the Legislature — once again — try to tackle the growing urban/rural divide. A close, unvarnished study of the problem and some thought-out efforts to help are definitely needed. Non-metro Atlantans are sicker, imprisoned more, and unemployed longer. Their fiscal, emotional and physical health affects us.

One way or another, though, when it comes to figuring out a way to help rural Georgia, metro Atlanta will mostly be pulling the weight.

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