Social consequences of this shift are dramatic. While a few huge farms are thriving, thanks in part to huge federal subsidies, more than 23 percent of residents live below the poverty line, the high school dropout rate is more than 32 percent (nearly 47 percent for African-American students), and more than 36 percent rely on Medicaid. Few high school graduates go to college. Rural crime rates rival and sometimes exceed those of metro Atlanta.
Rural out-migration and gerrymandering have compounded these problems by eroding the political influence of rural voters, but so have misguided federal policies that equate rural with agricultural. The countryside may still be dominated by farms, but it is no longer dominated by farmers. Federal farm policies benefit corporate farmers but marginalize the majority of rural Georgians, who work low-wage service sector jobs or scrape by with the help of dwindling government programs.
Problems long associated with urban decline now define much of rural Georgia and dozens of other Deep South counties. Yet for solutions, we must look beyond the simple rural-urban binary that has long defined the state and region. The problems unfolding in Southern rural areas are everybody’s problems. The political and economic implications of rural decline are not limited to the counties where those conditions exist, but instead have consequences for all of us.
Tammy Ingram is an assistant professor at the College of Charleston.