Athens residents, among the poorest in Georgia, are healthier than anyone would expect.
The poverty is well known. Clarke County has the seventh highest poverty rate in the state out of 159 counties. Nationally, Athens contains the fifth highest poverty rate among counties with populations higher than 100,000 people, according to recent census data.
And, experts say, that with this level of poverty comes poor health. This is the outcome for most counties in Georgia. Nearly 80 percent of Georgia’s counties with high poverty rates contain health statistics that match up just as poor.
But, a new study shows just the contrary for Athens. Clarke County ranks 14th for the best health rates in the state. They sit just above Henry County who oppose Clarke with the eighth lowest poverty rates.
An assembly of experts offered a range of explanations as to why these statistics contest one another. They include: a UGA Public Health professor, the state’s most well-known demographer, a volunteer physician, and an office manager at a health clinic for the underprivileged.
Three primary explanations from experts:
- Athens is a young town with a small percentage of the population 65 years or older, which lowers the mortality and morbidity rate.
- Athens has a large number of highly educated people who make smart health decisions.
- Athens is a social and economic hub with two regional health centers that attract commuters. There are also free health clinics that help the uninsured.
Athens is a young town.
Multiple news sources, from CNN to Kiplinger, have ranked Athens, Ga. as one of the top places in the country to retire, yet only 8 percent of the population is 65 years and above. That is lower than the rest of Georgia where an average of 11 percent are in their retirement years. In Clarke County, 74 percent of the residents are between the ages of 19 and 64 years old.
“If you have a population that is on the younger end of things,” said Dr. Monica Gaughan, UGA assistant professor in the College of Public Health, “than you are going to have lower mortality rates because older people are the ones who tend to be sicker.”
The University of Georgia plays a slight role in this statistic; however, only a small percentage of students declare Clarke County as their permanent residence so they do not effect the census results.
Almost two-thirds of UGA students come from about ten counties in the metro-Atlanta area, said Dr. Doug Bachtel, UGA professor of demographics. A significant number of these students drive back and forth from school each day or live in university dormitories.
The facts are simple. Younger people tend to be healthier people. Athens has a significant number of young to middle aged citizens who push the mortality and morbidity rate down; therefore, the overall health rate of the county is elevated.
Athens entices the highly educated.
“Better educated populations are going to live longer and they are going to be healthier while they are living,” Gaughan said. “One of the weird things about Athens-Clarke County is that we have extremely low income levels and extremely high education levels.”
The high school graduation rates of Clarke County are at 66 percent, which is only one point lower than the rest of Georgia; however, there is an overwhelming number of of the population with a bachelors degree or higher. The University of Georgia, located in the center of Athens, obviously plays a part in this statistic. A large portion of the population consists of highly educated professors and professionals, all who contain premiere health insurance and can afford to live healthy lifestyles.
Athens has a bimodal distribution of education and poverty levels, meaning there are large populations of people resting on two extremes of the spectrum. Forty percent of the Clarke citizens have a bachelors degree or above, which is twice the percentage of rest of the state.
“If you aren’t poor in Athens you are actually very well-off,” Gaughan said. “These are the people who are going to have access to good health care. They have money to buy healthy food. Yes, poor people are going to be unhealthy people and they are going to be more likely to die, but if half of the population is extremely wealthy, which is what happens in Clarke County, than they can pull that statistic up.”
Those classified within the 34 percent who live under the poverty line are not all uneducated. Gaughan stressed the necessity to remember the people who contain a college degree, but are voluntarily poor.
“Think about all of the musicians, and the artists and the hanger-oners that are part of Athens,” Gaughan described. “You have the education which will reduce your mortality and reduce your morbidity, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that education is translating into higher income.”
Athens is a medical hub.
Athens is a lively town with shops and shows that people from all parts of the state travel to be a part of. They also commute in for medical care because of the two regional hospitals: Athens Regional Hospital and St. Mary’s Hospital.
“It’s all about the location,” Bachtel said. “There is a large number of state and federal agencies that are headquartered here. You’ve got a large number of people with Blue Cross and Blue Shield health insurance. Plus Clarke County and Athens tends to be a social, retail, service and educational hub in northeast Georgia. That’s why a lot of things cook here.”
About 20 percent of Athens’ residents contain Medicaid. Another 23 percent contain jobs but are still uninsured because they are ineligible for Medicaid and make too little to afford insurance. Most of the private physicians in town refuse to see either type of person, choosing to only care for those on the upper half of the bimodal distribution.
Those struggling in the lower half are not left completely uncared for. A multitude of free clinics are offered through Athens Health Network, an organization committed to filling in the holes of medical care within the health system of Athens. The program started from an umbrella organization through UGA called OneAthens, and then broke off in 2010 to be more focused on underprivileged healthcare.
“Its confusing because most populations have a much more normal distribution than our population,” Gaughan said. “Athens-Clarke County is comprised of extremely affluent, white retirees and professors and professionals, and extremely poor African American people who clean our toilets, and that is the ugly little secret of Athens. These clinics constitute the health safety net in town so poor people, who don’t have insurance, can use these practices to get access to the system.”
The two most popular clinics are Mercy Health Center and Athens Nurses Clinic. Both care for those who are completely uninsured, with no way of paying for health services.
One their main goals, said Dr. Paul Buczynsky of Mercy in a World Magazine article, is to get their patients involved in their own health by educating them on their illnesses. When a patient is treated for diabetes, one of the most perpetual chronic diseases seen at the clinics, he or she is required to take a six-week course that teaches the patient about the illness in order to get a prescription refill. The volunteer physicians highly enforce lifestyle changes over quick treatment so that more patients can be seen over time.
Not a perfect system.
Despite the glowing census numbers, not all experts agree on the accomplishments of Athens’ healthcare system.
Dr. Bachtel feels confident in the success of the services provided by the faith community and free clinics; however, Dr. Gaughan and those at Athens Health Network know the harsh reality.
“We do not have enough resources for the poor,” Gaughan stated. “I think it is a convenient little fiction that we tell each other when we say, ‘There’s so much charity care. Athens is just too busy to hate.’ That’s crap.”
Demand for free healthcare in Athens is rising, according to an AthensPatch article. The clinics are first-come, first-serve, and only have the resources to see a limited number of patients per day, said Mary Baxter, office manager of Mercy.
When the clinics are closed, 75 percent of the patients go to the Athens Regional ER, even though most of their health issues are not emergencies. This increases their wait time and many leave without being treated.
“The poor have pretty hard lives and don’t have a lot of access to care,” Gaughan said. “They go to the emergency rooms which is not necessarily the highest quality of care. If you have diabetes and you are having a diabetic episode than you don’t need to be in the emergency room, you need to be with a physician that has been managing your care. Very few physicians take people who don’t have health insurance, or even take people with medicaid.”
Athens-Clarke County is one of the few places in Georgia who has defied the standard of poor people with poor health rates. However, as seen nationally and locally, there is always room for improvement in the public healthcare system.
The only 12 voters in the room devoid of a “Vote Brewster” sticker, stood alone for the eighth and final time, once again defeated by the tense stares of the seated majority.
This minority group was scattered among the precinct delegates at the annual Clarke County Republican Convention held on March 9th at the Foundry Inn. They call themselves the the Conservative GOP of Clarke (CGOPOC) and formed after the delegate fraud that occurred in last year’s convention. They are a political action committee committed to replacing the current leadership of the GOP with people who they feel follow strict Republican guidelines. After an entire year of campaigning and reaching out to the media, however, they were once again unsuccessful in obtaining a leadership role.
During the election process of the convention, each candidate had two minutes to convey their qualifications for the position to the public. Most did not take up the whole time slot. Bill Griffin, a CGOPOC supporter who ran for chairman, was a clear exception. With a stern face he gave his blunt opinion about the current GOP leadership, while most of the audience stared down at their feet.
“There’s no easy way to say this, last year’s convention was an embarrassment,” Griffin said during his two-minute ramble. “None of our county delegates were selected at the state convention because the convention was so defective. I submit that we need to change the leadership. I am willing to serve as the chairman.”
His mention of the embarrassing convention referred to the illegal election of the county delegates that occurred last year. Matt Brewster, the county chairman, and John Elliot, the nominating committee chair, disregarded the blatant shouts for a “division”, which is a call for a recount of votes. The meeting was ended improperly and those ignored bombarded the chairman and John Padgett, the Secretary of Georgia State Republican Party, with accusations of fraud. The CGOPOC filmed the fiasco and created a YouTube video that they broadcasted on their website and multiple media sources.
In May 2012 at the Georgia GOP convention, BJ Van Gundy, the chairman of the credentials committee, announced that no delegates would represent Clarke County due to the fact that they were elected illegally.
This year’s county convention was procedural and accurate. The CGOPOC made sure of that. Convention Chairman Bill Bushnell explained each step of the election process multiple times before he allowed any votes to be casted. Although the process seemed elementary to many, Bill Griffin and other CGOPOC supporters stood up various times during the convention to initiate a clarification of the rules.
“Mr. Chairman? Bill Griffin 6B, I understand each candidate gets to speak for one minute, correct?”
“Mr. Chairman? Bill Griffin 6B, question of privilege, the body deserves to hear the name of the person speaking.”
“Mr. Chairman? Mr. Chairman? Bill Griffin 6B, can you please clarify what we are voting on?”
Lori Bone, another CGOPOC supporter who ran for secretary, challenged the credentials of one of the county delegate alternates, Chelsea Magee, stating that she did not currently live in Clarke County. Bone proposed that she be put in Magee’s place.
With that, bustle of side comments spread between the seats.
“The rhetorical comments are a violation of the rules,” Convention Chairman Bushnell demanded.
Even after all of the commotion and credential confusion, Bone was once again shut down and did not receive the seat as a county delegate alternate.
Although candidates from both sides spoke on the importance of party unification, there was a clear split from the very beginning of this year’s convention. Each side convened in separate rooms before Chairman Matt Brewster called the meeting to order.
Eyes darted to the CGOPOC pack as they entered the convention room.
There were three levels of the election: county party officials, district delegates and alternates, and state delegates and alternates. The CGOPOC challenged the nominated candidates in all three levels. When votes were taken, the same 10 to 12 people stood in the PAC’s favor among a estimated crowd of 40-50 voters. As a result, the floor passed every original ballot of the nominating committee, despite the efforts of the minority group.
The meeting closed with little public drama. Although internal disappointment still fumed.
In separate interviews held a few days after the convention, Matt Brewster and Bill Griffin revealed their own opinions of the future of the Clarke County GOP; opinions that are on two different spectrums.
When asked if he felt at all threatened by the CGOPOC, Chairman Brewster was quick to deny the continuation of any such group efforts.
“That’s all over,” Brewster said. “Some people would have assumed that the party was split but when it was all said and done it was just a very small minority group that was very loud. They ran TV ads, newspaper ads, and radio ads. A lot of people didn’t care for their message because it was on the negative side.”
Brewster said that he is confident in the direction of the party and that the GOP has already reached out to many of the CGOPOC supporters to try and work with them in the future.
The reaction from Bill Griffin could not have been more opposite.
“If [Brewster] is under the impression that many people have forgotten about that, he’s just delusional. The video speaks for itself,” Griffin proclaimed.
He continued to rant about the lack of advertising from the GOP for the county convention. Only a small blurb was posted in the Athens Banner Harold 15 days prior to the meeting, which is the minimal requirement based on party rules.
“They don’t want people there,” Griffin said. “They say everything is good because, yeah, everything is good for them while they have their power.”
Griffin has chosen to remove himself from the republican politics of Clarke County for the time being.
“I can’t by conscience give my money, time and energy to the county party with the leadership in place and I couldn’t advice anyone else to.”
Local business owners sat around a long conference table covered in city maps to learn about the future transformation of downtown Athens. Professor Jack Crowley sat at the head and watched, with a mentor-like gaze, as a graduate student led the presentation.
Crowley, former Dean of the UGA College of Environmental Design, is the main coordinator of the Downtown Athens Master Plan, a project that maps out a new design of Athens by the year 2030. This includes everything from the creation of new transportation systems to the installation of more green space downtown. The Athens Downtown Development Authority was the first to envision the Master Plan; however, due to a lack of funding from the city, the ADDA handed the project down to Crowley to continue as a public service. Crowley volunteers his own time and talent to the creation of the plan. He is an example of an academic giving back to his community.
Many of UGA’s faculty play an active role in the Athens community through the Office of Public Service and Outreach. Their work spans a range of areas from environmental service projects to youth programs. Crowley is the only professor to work on an Athens improvement project through the ADDA, according to Kathryn Lookofsky, the ADDA Executive Director.
“Athens hasn’t had a new design plan since the 1970’s,” Crowley said. “The market has been on a rise since the crash in 2008, especially in real estate. I realized that downtown Athens needed to start developing again.”
His planning committee consists of UGA’s Master of Environmental Planning and Design graduate students, a program Crowley created himself in 2006.
“These students, some of which already have masters degrees, are very talented, and some have already practiced planning and have come back to school,” Crowley said.
MEPD is a two-year program that teaches skills in planning, design, ecology and research to use towards the development of a community-based project. Crowley created the program after stepping down from his ten-year reign as dean.
The current students in the program work with the Athens-Clarke County government, downtown businesses, and local citizens to improve the day to day usage of downtown Athens. They have been working on the Downtown Athens Master Plan since August and are expecting to complete it by June.
Vivian Foster is in her second year in the program and said she loves her work with the Master Plan project.
“Personally I was excited to be part of something that is practicing the profession before getting a degree and being able to make a real professional document as a grad student,” Foster said. “I think one of the exciting parts is that one day, you will see a new park or new development being used, and I can say that I was part of that. I like that idea.”
Crowley began his own education at the University of Oklahoma, where he gained all three of his degrees and graduated with a PhD in urban geography in 1976. Since then he has had over 40 years of professional experience in urban development and education in both the United States and Latin America.
The professor was drafted into the Vietnam War in 1965 and he stayed in the service until 1969. Despite his military background, Crowley is an easy-going and comical man; however, he does demand a lot of involvement from his graduate students in order for them to obtain real-world experience in urban planning.
“Jack is extremely knowledgeable,” said D.W. Cole, another graduate student in the MEPD program. “There is very little that he does not know about. He communicates very well and always helps us expand on any ideas we have.”
In UGA’s Tanner Building, Crowley and his planning team share their new ideas in monthly meeting with a group of citizens appointed to oversee the development of the Master Plan. Most of the group, known as the Steering Committee, are local business and property owners. The atmosphere within the room is light but professional. The Steering Committee members are quick to criticize any plan they feel would discourage the growth of their business.
Crowley created the Steering Committee based on his ethical commitment to address the needs of the public. He began with a public meeting last November, which gave all Athens residents the chance to offer their own ideas about what they would like to see in the plan. The main issues voiced were fixing up the sidewalks, making the city more walk-able and bike-able, creating more transportation options and opening up downtown access to the river.
Another Town Hall meeting will be conducted for all Athens citizens within the next month to gain the locals’ opinions on the projects they have come up with, based off of the ideas from the first meeting.
“Nothing is completely set in stone because we don’t know what the world will be like in 2030,” Crowley said. “Who knows we could have Segway tours of Athens by then. I will say, though, that until we see a better idea, this is the way we are going so that there is no conflict that slows the project down. That is why we are getting so much input from the public in the forefront of the plan.”
Dressed in a “Talk Nerdy To Me” t-shirt, an engineering student tore through a notebook filled with sketches of wheels, rods, frames and handlebars — all components of an automated bike rack. As he shared his ideas, the eight others in the laboratory listened and offered feedback.
The seven University of Georgia students and two professors, huddled in a small room in the south campus engineering building, are developing one of the most advanced and environmentally sustainable methods of transportation seen by the University.
“Bike Sharing” is a modern movement in which urban cities provide readily available bicycles to the public as an alternative way of transportation. The system began in Europe in the 1960’s, and spread throughout Asia, the Middle East and North and South America in the past two decades. Numerous cities across every region of the United States implemented bike sharing operations, including a large system in downtown Atlanta. According to USA Today, the systems are also popular on college campuses. Over 90 universities in the U.S. contain a public bicycle program.
Back in the engineering building at the University of Georgia, the head coordinator of the transportation project, Kareem Mahmoud, is bringing the bike sharing trend to Athens. Mahmoud is a third year finance major at the University, who recently received a grant from the Office of Sustainability to advance the current university bike sharing program and make it more efficient and wide-spread.
“It will be completely automatic where you put in a pin number or swipe a card to check out a bike, and then you can turn it back in somewhere else,” Mahmoud said. “It’s very stream line, very easy.”
The University implemented the current system, called Bulldog Bikes, last fall but has seen little traffic. There are only ten bikes available and students can only check them out at three separate locations, that is, after they complete an online safety course and fill out administrative paperwork.
Nigel Long, who lives at one of the three check-out locations, is one of the few students who uses Bulldog Bikes. Headed for class on a Tuesday morning, he stopped by the front desk of his residence hall to take one of the bikes. While he signed his name in a notebook, he flipped through the pages and laughed at the pattern he saw.
“You would think this was filled with hundreds of students who use the bikes everyday, but if you look closer, it’s all just my name, and then a couple random ones here and there,” Long said. “Biking is such an easy way to get to campus. I think a bigger bike sharing program would be awesome.”
Mahmoud attained the idea of expanding Bulldog Bikes after class one day over the summer. As he sat on North Campus, he looked towards downtown at Broad Street and noticed the immense amount of bikers that passed by. The young entrepreneur thought it would be beneficial to implement an automatic bike system where one could check in and check out public bikes, when needed, at any time of the day.
“At first I brushed it off and thought, ‘No that’s too complicated’,” Mahmoud said. “Then one day I just sat down and began doing the schematics for it to see how hard the coding would be, and realized that this could actually work.”
He researched the bike sharing programs of multiple cities and towns and based his own model off of successful systems of others.
“There is a system like it in Atlanta, a system like it in Miami,” Mahmoud said. “They are all over the place. Even a large number of college campuses have incorporated them, like Texas
Christian University, University of Kentucky, Ohio State, and even Georgia Tech. I figured UGA needed something like this too.”
Some University of Georgia students, like sophomore Hayley Magill, expressed worry about the safety of additional bikers on the road.
“I did bike sharing in Sweden and I loved it,” Magill said. “The only thing that concerns me is if people know all of the biking laws and would be safe on the bikes. I know cars aren’t always looking for bikers on the road so I might be nervous in trying to figure out the safest places to ride. I guess to get to places around campus without having to wait for a bus would be nice though.”
The expansion of the improved Bulldog Bikes beyond campus and into downtown Athens is a longterm goal for Mahmoud and his engineering team. To achieve that aspiration, however, downtown Athens needs to do some progressive development of its own.
BikeAthens, a local organization that encourages the growth of bike transportation, works with the Athens-Clarke County government to make the city more “bike-able”. Tyler Dewey, the director of BikeAthens, thinks there is potential for Mahmoud’s bike sharing program to work in downtown Athens, but he said that it will take time.
“The difficulty with a bike share is it sometimes takes a while to catch on,” Dewey explained. “I know in D.C. they started one and then it kind of fizzled out. Then they started one again about 10 years later and it has been a wild success.”
He said BikeAthens is supportive of anything that increases ridership and awareness of bikes.
“You can always tell the popular areas of town because you’ll see five or so bikes locked up, even if its to a tree because they can’t find parking. To me that suggests that there is latent demand for something like a bike share.”
With a large bike culture present in Athens, Mahmoud is confident that people will embrace this “cleaner” way of travel and, in turn, reduce the traffic congestion on campus and downtown.
He and his engineering team are in the process of designing a prototype that they will test this semester, and then present to the University administration in order to gain approval from Legal Affairs and move forward with further implementation. The main funding of the project comes from the Office of Sustainability grant and student green fees.
Bike sharing programs are successful across the globe for both environmental and economic reasons. According to the American Society of Landscape Architects, who helped re-map Washington D.C. to be more bike-friendly, a car emits 15 pounds of air pollution into the atmosphere for every eight miles that it drives. When that distance is biked, however, there is no harm to the environment and there is less strain on the biker’s pocketbook.
Bulldog Bikes is in its infant stage as a program, which Mahmoud and his engineering team intend to mature into a state of the art transportation system. After an hour-long debate over non-rustable metal, the nine University of Georgia students and staff ended their meeting on a playful note in an argument about the color of the new Bulldog Bikes.
“We said we wanted the bikes to be distinct,” Mahmoud said with a sly smile. “I say we go with hot pink.”