Former Senior Demographer
Appalachia Makes Strides in Education and Economics, But Region Faces Enduring Challenges, New Data Shows
While a growing share of residents have college degrees, jobs, and rising incomes, Appalachia faces inequities in poverty, aging, and internet access compared to the rest of the United States.
A new report from PRB and the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) shows that Appalachia continues to improve in educational attainment, labor force participation, income levels, and poverty reduction. Drawing from the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest American Community Survey and comparable Census Population Estimates, The Appalachian Region: A Data Overview from the 2017-2021 American Community Survey, known as The Chartbook, contains more than 300,000 data points comparing Appalachia at the regional, subregional, state, and county levels with the rest of the nation. Key improvements include:
- Median household income increased nearly 10% between 2012-2016 and 2017-2021, with 93 Appalachian counties experiencing 15% increases.
- Bachelor’s degree attainment among people ages 25 and older increased by three percentage points to 26%, helping the Region surpass its milestone of more than one-quarter of residents attaining this level of education.
- Appalachia’s labor force participation rates has risen slightly since the 2012-2016 period. Meanwhile, unemployment declined almost two percentage points—and even more in some parts of the Region.
- Appalachia’s overall poverty rate (14.5%) decreased two percentage points between 2012-2016 and 2017-2021.
- Southern Appalachia’s population increased more than 10% between mid-2010 and 2021, surpassing the average growth rate for the United States.
“The Chartbook clearly contains some good news for the Appalachian Region, with improvements on several measures of overall well-being,” notes Kelvin Pollard, senior demographer at PRB, who co-authored the report with PRB research analyst Sara Srygley and PRB senior fellow Linda A. Jacobsen. “At the same time, the data also tell us where vulnerabilities remain.”
Poverty, Aging, and Internet Access Issues Persist Across Region, With Some Counties Faring Worse
Despite the positive trends, several data points revealed vulnerabilities that underscore the inequities in Appalachia compared to the rest of the nation:
- Though regional poverty rates declined overall, rates stayed the same or increased in 77 Appalachian counties.
- A smaller share of Appalachian households had a broadband subscription compared to households in non-Appalachian areas. In 42 Appalachian counties, subscription rates were less than 70%. This gap in access, even within the Region itself, impacts residents’ ability to work remotely, participate in online learning, use telehealth services, and more.
- Appalachia’s population trends older than the national average, with individuals ages 65 and older reaching at least 19.1% in 291 Appalachian counties. Additionally, the percentage of Appalachians ages 65 and older with a disability is more than three percentage points higher than the national rate.
- The percentage of Appalachian households receiving payments from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) was higher (over 13%) compared to all U.S. households (over 11%), with rates in Central Appalachia exceeding 20%. For households with children under age 18, Appalachia’s SNAP participation is higher than the national rate (21% and 18%, respectively).
“While Appalachia has improved on several key measures, data on broadband access and SNAP participation show that some conditions continue to be more challenging in the Region than in the rest of the country,” Srygley points out.
Rural Appalachia Lags Behind Region’s Urban Areas, Rest of Rural United States
The report also indicates that Appalachia’s rural areas continue to be more vulnerable than its urban areas. In addition, Appalachia’s 107 rural counties face unique challenges compared to 841 similarly designated rural counties across the rest of the United States. Specifically, rural Appalachia continues to lag behind the rest of rural America in educational attainment, broadband access, household income, and population growth.
In addition to the written report, ARC offers companion web pages on Appalachia’s population, employment, education, income and poverty, computer and broadband access, and rural Appalachian counties compared to other rural American counties. For more information, visit www.arc.gov/chartbook.
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 report uses data from the 2017-2021 American Community Survey and the Census Bureau’s vintage 2020 and 2021 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 entity 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.