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Lost Generation: Study cites causes for county’s loss of young people

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Georgetown County lost nearly 12 percent of the people who make up the family-raising age groups during the first decade of the new century, and a study commissioned by local governments lists public safety, housing and lack of entertainment among the reasons for the decline.

Missing from the list were areas of traditional concern for policy makers, such as jobs and education.

“It’s tough to draw conclusions,” said Sel Hemingway, the county administrator. “There were a lot of fringe areas.”

Alone among six coastal counties of comparable size, Georgetown County saw the number of people between the ages of 20 and 44 decline in the 2010 Census. While the county population grew by almost 8 percent, that growth was driven by residents 55 and older. And growth was almost exclusively on the Waccamaw Neck, which grew 34 percent. Five of the county’s seven other census tracts lost population.

And the study found that nearly three in 10 residents are likely to move within the next two years, with younger people twice as likely to move as older people.

The results, if accurate, could have significant impact on the school district, which has seen a steady decline in enrollment, Superintendent Randy Dozier said.

The finding that more people in the age groups with children at home plan to move “shocked me,” he said. “You may have to look at closing some of those facilities” in rural areas.

“Why are the other coastal counties able to attract all age groups and Georgetown isn’t?” asked Bill Tomes, director of Governmental Research and Service at the University of South Carolina.

That’s what the county, the school district, the city of Georgetown and the water and sewer district want to know. They commissioned the USC Institute for Public Service and Policy Research to find out.

Researchers conducted phone and mail surveys of current and former residents to get their views on a range of government services and quality-of-life issues. They also surveyed a similar sample from Brunswick County, N.C., which has a similar geographic and demographic makeup, which saw eight times the growth of Georgetown County in the 2010 Census.

“We’re always hearing how wonderful Brunswick is,” Tomes was told by local officials.

The study found differences between the two counties as well as differences between people within Georgetown County. Tomes explained that the report highlights areas where the differences are the greatest.

Nearly 25 percent of Georgetown County residents said they feel “not too safe” or “not safe at all” compared with only 6 percent in Brunswick. Among county residents who make under $50,000 a year, 28 percent felt less safe, compared with 4 percent of residents with incomes over $50,000. Those who live in the rural areas were twice as likely to feel unsafe as those who live on Waccamaw Neck, according to the study.

Focusing on the 20-44 age group, 17 percent in Georgetown County felt unsafe compared with 6 percent in Brunswick.

County residents who are younger and those with lower incomes are more likely to rate quality of police protection “poor” or “very poor,” according to the survey. Rural residents are twice as likely to call police protection poor as Waccamaw Neck residents.

And of those who have moved from the county nearly nine out of 10 said safety was an issue in their decision to leave.

Hemingway said he was surprised by the results, and a little skeptical, noting the landslide victories of Sheriff Lane Cribb in recent elections and the accreditation of the sheriff’s office by the S.C. Law Enforcement Association.

Cribb said he hadn’t seen the report, which was completed in late May.

“It’s all in their heads. It’s perception,” he said. “We solve more crimes and have a lower crime rate than any jurisdiction around us.”

The USC study acknowledges that the county crime rate is lower than state and national averages, but points out the rates of violent crime and property crime are higher than Brunswick County. “Public safety is clearly an issue that needs to be addressed, especially among the lower income and more rural residents of Georgetown County,” the study says.

Low income and rural residents also say housing is hard to find in Georgetown County. Higher percentages of homeowners and renters spend more than a third of their income on housing in Georgetown County than in Brunswick, the study found.

‘Little to do’ some say

County residents under 45 were twice as likely to say there is “little to do for entertainment” compared with older residents. A larger portion of young people in Georgetown County (17 percent) rated the quality of life as “poor” or “very poor” compared with Brunswick County (6 percent).

And a result that surprised both researchers and Hemingway showed that 24 percent of county residents rated air quality as poor or very poor compared with 4 percent in Brunswick County. “That blew my mind,” Hemingway said.

Researchers found data from an environmental watchdog group that showed the county’s emissions scored lower than Brunswick, but the data was from 2003. Still, “this data tells us that the beliefs about poor air quality in Georgetown are not necessarily just perception and present another issue that needs to be addressed,” the report says.

In other areas, Georgetown County trailed Brunswick in the number of people who rate parks either very good or excellent 43 to 57 percent, and in the number who gave high ratings to recreation facilities, 37 to 49 percent. That’s an area where Hemingway believes the county’s recent parks projects that are part of its capital improvement plan will be able to change perceptions. A baseball tournament complex just opened west of Georgetown and three facilities on Waccamaw Neck are due to open later this year.

On quality of roads, Georgetown and Brunswick counties were nearly equal. More people in Brunswick rate traffic congestion as a problem than in Georgetown County.

There were several areas where the results were classified as “not statistically significant,” which Tomes explained means the results could change if the survey was done again. One of those areas was education.

Impact on education

In both counties, 40 percent of those surveyed rated the quality of public schools “fair.” Georgetown had slightly more than Brunswick rate them very good and excellent.

Dozier wasn’t surprised by the result, though he admitted being relieved to learn young people aren’t moving from the county because of the schools. “People generally rate their schools very high,” he said.

That’s one reason the survey result wasn’t significant, Tomes said. People tend to rate their local schools differently from the district as a whole.

But the study has other impacts on the school district. It has been under a desegregation order from the federal courts since the 1970s and is currently operating under a consent decree which requires the U.S. Justice Department to review the district annually for compliance. The district has applied for “unitary status,” which means it would no longer be subject to that review.

With the USC study, Dozier said the district can show the Justice Department “it’s not just the school district, it’s county-wide. There are some fairly significant issues.”

Hemingway, who once chaired the county Economic Development Commission and County Council before becoming administrator, said education remains a vital area in attracting prospective employers, and in providing jobs for people who would otherwise have to leave the county – those in the key 20-44 age group.

“That still comes up,” he said.

The school district plans to start an aeronautics program this year to take advantage of the Boeing aircraft factory in North Charleston, Dozier said. He hopes that will help the county expand its job base.

“What can we do to make sure people want to stay here? I think it’s a great place to live,” Dozier said.

Jobs was another area in the USC study where the numbers weren’t significant. In Georgetown County, two thirds said the availability of jobs is “poor” or “very poor.” In Brunswick the number was even higher.

Hemingway said he expected jobs would be more of a factor causing young people to move from the county. Although they were listed by people among their reasons for moving, they weren’t any more of a factor in Georgetown County than in Brunswick, according to the study.

“In comparison to Brunswick County, Georgetown County is perceived to be a less desirable place to live; and in fact, real or perceived issues, especially those of public safety, affordable housing and other quality of life issues, are contributing to the dissatisfaction of the 20-44 year old population,” the report says. “Georgetown County is not meeting the needs of this age group, and so they are leaving for places that do.”

Asking more questions

While local officials have had two months to consider the results of the study, they plan to get Tomes and his staff at the Institute for Public Service to make a formal presentation of the information to elected officials.

Dozier and Hemingway agree that the study raises as many questions as it answers.

“It would be wonderful if you had a graph with a spike up there that said this is why they’re leaving,” Hemingway said.

“This lends itself to some more study,” Dozier said. “If these are issues, how can you improve on them?”

The report also breaks new ground for the policy institute, which Tomes said typically does customer satisfaction surveys for government agencies. “We haven’t done anything like this, trying to answer these questions,” he said. “We had hoped there would be one answer. There’s not. It’s a lot of little things that go into this.”

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