Rural decline concerns us all

Atlanta may be the largest city in the Deep South, but every Georgian knows that Atlanta — or ‘lanter, as I thought it was called while growing up in South Georgia — is hardly representative of the state, much less the entire region. The metro area is home to more than half the state’s population and most of its best-paying jobs. But if you want an accurate snapshot of the rest of the state, you’ll have to crop out metro Atlanta.

That snapshot isn’t pretty. Rural counties have the highest unemployment rates, lowest incomes, worst high school dropout rates and so on. The poverty rate in rural Georgia is nearly 25 percent, versus 18 percent in urban areas.

This tale of two Georgias is not new. The state has long been divided along a rural-urban axis. But whereas the rural sections of the state once held the balance of political and economic power — thanks to the county unit system, which gave disproportionate weight to rural white votes, and also to the state’s fertile agricultural region, long known as the Black Belt for its reliance on (and exploitation of) African-American farm workers — since the end of World War II, the seat of power has shifted to the densely populated metropolitan area around Atlanta.

Still, Georgia, like much of the South, remains predominantly rural.

What it means to be rural has changed in recent years. Most rural people no longer make their living farming. The consolidation of small family farms into huge agribusinesses has devastated many farm families in places like Seminole County, in the southwest corner of the state.

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.

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