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While Household Incomes Rise in Appalachia, Digital Gap Threatens to Leave Many Rural Communities Behind

The Number of Households with Computer and Broadband Access Lower than National Average says new Population Reference Bureau report for Appalachian Regional Commission

Contact: Leslie Aun, PRB 703 517 4550

WASHINGTON, D.C.—A new report written by Population Reference Bureau (PRB) for the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) finds that increases in median household incomes in Appalachia outpaced the national average, but the digital divide that exists in the Region could put residents at a significant disadvantage in key areas such as healthcare, education, and finances.

According to The Appalachian Region: A Data Overview From the 2013-2017 American Community Survey, median household income in the Region rose by 2.5 percent between 2013-2017, compared with a national increase of 1.6 percent. However, median household income in Appalachia was still nearly $10,000 lower than the national median of $57,652.

Just over 82 percent of Appalachian households have access to a computer device, compared with a national average of about 87 percent. While nearly 64 percent of Appalachian households have access to a smartphone, only 43 percent have subscriptions to a cellular data plan, and the number of households with broadband access is six percentage points below the national average. The report found that the digital divide is particularly acute in Appalachia’s most rural communities.

“In today’s world, high-speed internet is not only the access point for important information and services, it is a significant driver of economic growth,” said Kelvin Pollard, PRB senior demographer and coauthor of the report. “Our research suggests that many Appalachian residents and communities could be at a disadvantage, today and in the future, as the result of this digital divide.”

The Appalachian Region encompasses 205,000 square miles along the Appalachian Mountains from southern New York to northern Mississippi, including portions of 12 states and all of West Virginia. The Region includes such major cities as Pittsburgh and Birmingham, along with portions of metropolitan Atlanta and Cincinnati.

Key findings of the report included:  

  • Just over 25 percent of Appalachia’s working-age population has a four-year college degree, seven percentage points lower than the U.S. average of 32 percent. The share of adults with an associate’s degree was slightly higher than the national average.
  • Nearly three-fourths (73 percent) of Appalachia’s prime working-age adults were in the labor force in 2013-2017, which is almost five percentage points lower than in the United States as a whole. Seventeen counties had unemployment rates of 10 percent or higher, down from 37 in 2012-2016.
  • The share of Appalachian residents living below the poverty level ($24,858 for a family of two adults and two children) exceeded the national average for every age group except those ages 65 and older.
  • The population growth rate of 1.4 percent was significantly lower than the national average of 5.3 percent, with two-thirds of Appalachian counties experiencing a net loss of population.
  • People ages 65 and older make up nearly 18 percent of Appalachia’s population—about two percentage points above the national average.
  • Residents are more likely to have health insurance compared with the rest of the nation. The only exception is among young adults ages 26 to 34, where the share without insurance is higher in Appalachia, potentially reflecting this age group’s lower rates of employment and low levels of income.
  • Among all age groups, the share of Appalachian residents who reported a disability (difficulty with hearing, vision, cognition, walking or climbing, self-care, or independent living) in 2013-2017 was above the national average—with the gap largest among 35- to 64-year-olds (17.3 percent in Appalachia versus 12.9 percent nationwide).

“These patterns suggest that the pace of economic recovery since the Great Recession has varied across the Region, but the counties that saw increases in median household income are also those with higher levels of education and labor force participation, and lower levels of unemployment,” said report coauthor Linda A. Jacobsen, PRB’s vice president for U.S. Programs.

About the Appalachian Regional Commission
The Appalachian Regional Commission is an economic development agency of the federal government and 13 state governments focusing on 420 counties across the Appalachian Region. ARC’s mission is to innovate, partner, and invest to build community capacity and strengthen economic growth in Appalachia to help the Region achieve socioeconomic parity with the nation.