Doug Bachtel and the decline of hard data
By Tom Baxter
A few weeks ago I was writing a column about how Georgia’s fastest growing counties are no longer in the Atlanta Metro area, and so I emailed some questions to the go-to source on subjects like that, Doug Bachtel, the University of Georgia demographer who founded the Georgia County Guide. He answered me promptly and I put some of what he had to say in the column.
Bachtel was one of those people I’ve known and depended on for decades, but always at a distance. It was a complete surprise to learn last week that he had died of complications from multiple sclerosis. Our brief email exchange must have been among the last of many thousands of exchanges he’d had with the media during his career. On just about any subject related to broad trends in the state, he was a reliable and widely quoted source of factual data for many years.
Simply to attempt a county guide in a state with 159 of them was an act of boldness, and over time the guide, along with the Georgia Municipal Guide and Georgia Housing Guide which he also edited, has become an invaluable source of information about the state. Sierra Club lobbyist Neill Herring recalled how the data showing a growing percentage of residents in the outer counties leaving the county to work somewhere else presaged the suburban tide ahead.
“You could see Metro Atlanta growing in those numbers,” Herring recalled.
Bachtel’s death comes at a time when the state of data in general in this state is not so good. Years of budget cuts have resulted in delays or cancellations of regular data collection and reports in agriculture and other economic sectors, and despite the ease of the internet it’s no longer as easy to get one’s hands on hard information on many subjects as it used to be.
This can be blamed partly on the crisis in state revenues, and at least somewhat on the reality that a lot of people don’t really want to know what objective study might teach them. Real facts are stubborn things, and so the gathering of facts isn’t always so popular around budgeting time.
In the place of hard data, we see ourselves awash with the kind of information you find in a lot of indexes of a city’s business friendliness, and so forth. It’s what you might call targeted data, or message data, or funded data. But it doesn’t replace the value of real things measured in real time, and reported objectively. This decline in the quality of the information we use to measure ourselves began long before Bachtel’s career came to an end.
The Macon Telegraph noted that some of the problems Bachtel pointed out in a report he prepared about Bibb County in the early 1990s have improved over time. But despite civic initiatives generated by the report, many have only gotten worse.
“Bachtel’s report, ‘Bibb County: A Demographic Profile of Growth and Change,’ remains on a shelf in the Washington Memorial Library,” the Telegraph noted.
There was a great value, nevertheless, in knowing up front how bad problems like teen pregnancy and dropout rates really were. Without some objective means to measure where we are, the tendency is going to be to fall even further behind.
Bachtel went about measuring the state with a famous enthusiasm and cheerfulness which in many cases helped to deflect displeasure with the information — about race, poverty, unplanned growth and other uncomfortable subjects — he provided the public. In that last email to me he spoke of how he still believed the state was destined for dynamic growth, though a good bit of it, he predicted, will be geriatric, as retirees flee other states.
He’ll be hard to replace. We should remember to give respect to those who hold up a mirror for us to see ourselves with, painful though that may sometimes be.