A group of legislators called the Rural Development Council spent several months looking for ideas to reverse the flow of people and businesses away from Georgia’s rural counties. They finished their work last week with a set of recommendations they hope will do the trick: income tax breaks for people who move to rural counties, subsidies to bring broadband internet services to these areas and a state facility to assist in the recruitment of new businesses.
It’s commendable to extend a helping hand to the state’s more impoverished rural areas, but the same legislators who are trying to do this also allowed something to happen a few years ago that undercuts their efforts. During Gov. Nathan Deal’s first years in office, Deal refused to expand Medicaid coverage as part of the federal Affordable Care Act. The legislature’s Republican leadership—the same lawmakers who now want to revive rural Georgia—supported Deal in this decision.
By not expanding Medicaid coverage, Deal essentially turned down about $9 billion in federal funding that would have flowed to Georgia’s doctors and hospitals over a three-year period. Much of that federal money would have gone to hard-pressed rural hospitals that treat large numbers of Medicaid patients. After Deal spurned the federal dollars for Medicaid expansion, several of these financially struggling rural hospitals gave up the ghost and closed their doors. At least six rural hospitals have gone under since 2013, in fact.
The state has never come up with a way to replace that lost federal money and reopen these shuttered rural hospitals. If there is no hospital in a rural county to provide reasonable access to health care, there isn’t much chance that businesses are going to locate there. The actions by the governor and the legislative leadership helped ensure there are at least six fewer hospitals than there were just five years ago.
Another problem for legislators who want to bring new business to rural counties is that executive branch agencies like the state Department of Economic Development are working against them. The Department of Economic Development is pulling out all the stops to lure companies like Amazon to open new facilities in Georgia, developments that have the potential to create thousands of new jobs. Major companies like Porsche and Mercedes-Benz have already chosen not to locate in a remote rural county, but in metro Atlanta instead. Other companies like Amazon, if they make the decision to open an office here, are likely to make that same choice.
Georgia lawmakers want businesses to come to rural Georgia. The state’s professional industry hunters, conversely, are trying to bring in businesses that won’t even think about moving to those areas. The result is that you will have more new companies in metro Atlanta that create new jobs, and those new jobs in turn will persuade even more people to desert their rural counties and move to the big city.
One of the recommendations made by the Rural Development Council could well be achievable: bringing broadband access to internet services to the state’s rural counties. It’s been estimated that roughly one in six Georgians does not have internet access, which effectively shuts them out of participating in the modern economy and job market. Regardless of whether lawmakers succeed in the revitalization of rural areas, those residents deserve to have the same access to the information age as their city counterparts.
In the end, it is very difficult to move against the tide of history. For decades, the trend in this country has been for people to move from rural areas to the cities, not vice versa. That’s why today fewer than 20 percent of Americans live in rural counties. It’s a compassionate goal to try to reverse that trend—but it may not be a realistic one.