Appalachia Data Report Identifies Economic Gains, Key Gaps Heading Into COVID Pandemic

Longstanding vulnerabilities suggest some groups in the Appalachian Region are at risk for greater hardship during the pandemic.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Appalachia’s median household income and labor force participation were both on the rise, and poverty rates were declining. But longstanding vulnerabilities suggest that some groups in the Appalachian Region risked greater hardship related to the pandemic, including older adults with disabilities, households without internet access, and residents of the Region’s most rural counties.

The Appalachian Region: A Data Overview From the 2016-2020 American Community Survey, a new PRB report for the Appalachian Regional Commission, provides a comprehensive picture of social and economic conditions in Appalachia before and during the first 10 months of the COVID-19 pandemic. As more data from the pandemic and post-pandemic periods become available in the coming years, this report can serve as a benchmark of comparison for future analysis.

“Although the report data do not measure the pandemic’s social and economic impact beyond 2020, they do allow Appalachian program planners and policymakers to pinpoint areas and population subgroups most at risk and enable them to better target assistance,” said Kelvin Pollard, senior demographer at PRB, who coauthored the report with Linda A. Jacobsen, PRB senior fellow.

Drawing from the latest American Community Survey and U.S. Census Bureau Population Estimates, the report contains more than 300,000 data points comparing Appalachia’s regional, subregional, state, and county levels with the rest of the nation.

Appalachia’s Economy Was Improving Before COVID-19

During the 2016-2020 period (which includes the four years leading up to the pandemic), Appalachia was improving across several measures. Data suggest that much of the Region had finally recovered from the 2007-2009 recession, though this recovery was slower than in most of the nation.

  • Median household income increased nearly 10% between 2011-2015 and 2016-2020, with 83 of 423 Appalachian counties throughout the Region experiencing increases of at least 15%.
  • Appalachia’s overall poverty rate (14.7%) decreased 2.4 percentage points between 2011-2015 and 2016-2020.
  • Labor force participation (73.8%)—though 4 percentage points lower than the national average—increased by 1.1 percentage points between 2011-2015 and 2016-2020, surpassing the national increase of 0.8 percentage points.

Another bright spot is that Appalachia’s residents are slightly less likely to be without health insurance at nearly all ages than other U.S. residents; young adults ages 26 to 34 are the only exception.

Pandemic May Be Compounding Disadvantages Related to Poverty, Aging, Disability, and Lagging Internet Access

Despite positive trends, the report revealed vulnerabilities that may have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic’s health, social, and economic impacts.

  • Regional poverty rates have declined overall, but rates have stayed the same or increased in 85 Appalachian counties.
  • Fewer Appalachian households had a broadband subscription compared with households elsewhere in the nation (80.7% compared with 85.2%). In 26 Appalachian counties, the prevalence of subscriptions was less than 65%. This digital divide, even within the Region itself, impacts residents’ access to remote work, online learning, telehealth, and more.
  • The percentage of Appalachian households receiving payments from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (formerly known as Food Stamps) was higher (more than 13%) compared to non-Appalachian households (more than 11%), with households in Central Appalachia reaching almost 21%. For households with children under age 18, Appalachia’s SNAP participation rate is higher than the national rate (21% v. 18%).
  • The proportion of working-age adults (ages 25 to 64) with a bachelor’s degree was 15.8% in Central Appalachia, 18.2% in rural Appalachian counties, and 26.9% Region-wide, compared with 34.3% nationally.
  • Nearly three-fourths (73.8%) of Appalachia’s working-age adults were in the labor force compared with 78.2% nationwide. Only 60.5% were in the labor force in Central Appalachia. Counties with higher labor force participation rates also tend to have higher levels of educational attainment.
  • The share of Appalachia’s residents ages 65 and older was just over 19% in 2020, more than 2 percentage points above the national average. Additionally, the share of Appalachians ages 65 and older with a disability was more than 3 percentage points higher than the national rate.

“With persons ages 65 and older particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 complications, communities with the largest share of older adults have similarly been at risk of higher illness and death rates because of the pandemic,” Pollard points out.

Rural Appalachia More Disadvantaged Than the Rest of the Rural United States

The report’s data show that not only are Appalachia’s rural areas more vulnerable than its urban areas, but the Region’s 107 rural counties also face greater disadvantages than 841 similarly designated rural counties in the rest of the country.

  • Population decline was much faster in rural Appalachia between 2010 and 2020 than in rural counties in the rest of the country—3% versus 0.6%.
  • Educational attainment among adults ages 25 to 64 in rural Appalachia lagged about 4 percentage points behind that in rural counties outside the Region in 2016-2020, both in terms of high school and college completion.
  • At $42,403, median household income in rural Appalachian counties was about $9,500 lower than median income in rural counties outside the Region. In rural Appalachia, 20% of residents live in poverty compared with 15.4% in the rest of the rural United States.
  • Housing stock also differed: Mobile homes made up nearly 20% of residences in rural Appalachia compared with just under 12% in the rest of the rural United States.
  • As was true with Appalachia as a whole, labor force participation in the Region’s rural counties was lower than in rural counties outside the Region (65% v. 74%).
  • Workers in rural Appalachia were also much more likely to work outside their county of residence (32% v. 20%) and have commutes of 30 minutes or more (31% v. 22%).
  • The digital divide was wider in rural Appalachian counties than elsewhere in the rural United States. More than one-fifth of rural Appalachian households (22%) had no internet access—4 percentage points higher than in other rural counties. And the share with at least 1 computer device in the household (83%) and the share with a broadband subscription (74%) were both more than 4 percentage points lower in rural Appalachia. With most schools closed throughout much of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this rural digital divide likely made online education even more challenging for children in Appalachia’s rural counties.
  • Disability rates were higher in rural Appalachia than in other rural areas of the country (20% v. 16%). Indeed, they were higher among all age groups, with at least a 5-percentage point gap among residents ages 35 to 64 and ages 65 and older.
  • SNAP participation rates in rural Appalachia were also higher than in rural areas outside the Region (17% v. 13%). More than one-fourth of households with children in rural Appalachia (26%) received SNAP benefits compared with slightly more than one-fifth of households with children in the rest of the rural United States (21%).

“The report indicates that conditions were already more challenging in rural Appalachia up through the first 10 months of the pandemic than in rural areas outside the Region. These data also provide an important baseline for future assessments of the differential impact of the pandemic on rural Appalachia compared with rural areas in the rest of the country,” says Jacobsen.

The Appalachian Region encompasses 206,000 square miles along the Appalachian Mountains from southern New York to northern Mississippi, including portions of 12 states and all of West Virginia.

The Appalachian Regional Commission report uses data from the 2016-2020 American Community Survey and the Census Bureau’s vintage 2020 population estimates—the most recent data available for the characteristics studied. It includes detailed tables and county-level maps covering state- and county-level data on population, age, race and ethnicity, housing occupancy and tenure, housing type, education, computer ownership and internet access, labor force participation, employment and unemployment, transportation and commuting, income and poverty, health insurance coverage, disability status, migration patterns, and veteran status. It also includes a detailed comparison of characteristics in rural Appalachian counties with those outside the Region.

About the Appalachian Regional Commission

The Appalachian Regional Commission is an economic development agency of the federal government and 13 state governments focusing on 423 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.