Rural midstate declines as population ages

mstucka@macon.comJuly 13, 2014 

John Branan, of Dry Branch, values his longtime Twiggs County community for its quiet nature, but he says younger people simply move away when they can’t find work.

“There’s no reason for someone to move to Twiggs County, unless they’re just looking for a quiet place to garden and sleep,” he said.

U.S. Census Bureau population estimates suggest that Twiggs County has lost 40 percent of its residents under 40 just since the year 2000. At the same time, the number of county residents 60 or older has grown by nearly a third, a Telegraph analysis shows.

Branan, 75, has two rental properties but can’t recall the last tenant who found work in Twiggs County. He has nearby relatives who work in Macon and Milledgeville. That’s a big change from when he was a child in Dry Branch, when many people walked to work at a kaolin operation that’s now out of business.

“There’s nowhere to work in Twiggs County,” he said.

Kaolin is gone from Dry Branch, as is much of the economy that went with it. There used to be three stores on nearby stretch of road. All of them are gone.

Baby boomers lead to aging population

Twiggs County is not completely alone in having an aging population. Crawford and Wilkinson counties, which also are small and with limited local economies, lost about a fifth of their populations under age 40 since 2000, according to census population estimates. The number of older people, however, climbed. In Crawford County, the number of people in their 60s and 70s increased 77 percent.

Greg George, director of Middle Georgia State College’s Center for Economic Analysis, said young people traditionally have tended to leave the farm behind and move to cities.

“It’s unsustainable to consistently be losing young people and gaining senior citizens,” he said. “That’s why they remain rural, small counties.”

Twiggs County’s school enrollment almost has been cut in half. In March 2014, the school system had 897 students, down from the 1,797 students in March 2000. The largest grade then had 180 students; now the largest grade has just 77.

George said Middle Georgia’s less-populated counties have a hard time competing for jobs with Bibb and Houston counties, because new employers are more interested in having access to a larger workforce, an urban center, better transportation and more schools. In essence, growing counties have an easier time continuing to grow.

Judy Shurling, executive director of Jeffersonville and Twiggs County’s development authority, said the county lost jobs after it raised taxes and the kaolin industry moved on. Now, the job market is costing the county younger families, she said.

“Families are leaving to seek different schools or different types of jobs,” she said.

But Twiggs County has great potential, Shurling said, including what may be the only sites along Interstate 16’s full length, between Macon and Savannah, that have infrastructure and are ready to sell today.

More seniors across the nation

An aging population isn’t limited to Middle Georgia. At the national level, from 2000 to 2013, the number of people in their 60s and 70s grew 39 percent. The U.S. Census Bureau expects the population of senior citizens to nearly double by the year 2050, as baby boomers grow older. The United States will continue having an older population because the country is experiencing lower birth rates, which limits numbers of younger people, and longer life expectancies, which increases the numbers of older people, according to a census report.

One of the starkest changes in the midstate was in Monroe County, where the number of people in their 60s and 70s nearly doubled since the year 2000, increasing 95 percent. The number of people who are at least 80 also increased, going up 79 percent.

Jimmy Pace is a real estate broker and a certified real estate appraiser who acknowledges that, at 72, he’s part of the trend.

“We’ve got a good things here, and a lot of people want to retire here. We’ve had upscale developments that older folk are able to afford,” said Pace, a former Forsyth mayor.

Pace said seniors heading to Monroe County find relatively low tax rates, good transportation, good medical care options, a local hospital, great law enforcement and a low cost of living. He predicted that over time more workers from the Georgia Department of Corrections will find homes in Monroe County, adding more working-age people to the residential count.

Young people concentrating in few places

At the national level, the number of people in their 20s increased just 2 percent from 2000 to 2013, while the number of people in their 20s and 30s increased 5 percent. Most Middle Georgia counties failed to approach those numbers.

Bibb and Laurens counties both lost relatively modest numbers of people under 40, The Telegraph’s analysis shows.

Peach, Monroe and Jones counties attracted younger people in relatively modest quantities, generally around the national rates. Bleckley County lost people under 20 but added more people in their 30s and 40s. Baldwin County’s youngest age group was stable, but the county lost people in their 30s and 40s.

The sole standout for young population growth was Houston County. There, the number of people under 20 grew 21 percent, while the number of people in their 20s and 30s grew 27 percent. Those rates are still lower than the county’s overall growth rate of 33 percent.

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.

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