Appalachia's Slow Growth Not Seen in All Its Counties

Appalachia’s residents remain older, less educated, and less racially diverse than the United States as a whole, but those population trends vary widely by county, according to the The Appalachian Region in 2010: A Census Data Overview, prepared by the Population Reference Bureau for the Appalachian Regional Comission. (The report analyzed 2010 Census and 2005-2009 American Community Survey data.)

The Appalachian region encompasses 205,000 square miles along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from southern New York to northern Mississippi, including portions of 12 states and all of West Virginia. The Appalachian Region in 2010: A Census Data Overview finds that this region’s population grew 7 percent between 2000 and 2010, slightly lower than the nearly 10 percent U.S. growth rate for the decade. In every Appalachian state except Alabama and Georgia, the part of the state outside the Appalachian region grew at a faster rate, noted Linda A. Jacobsen, report co-author and vice president of Domestic Programs at PRB.

One-third of the region’s 420 counties lost population during the decade—mostly in the northern and central counties, as well as in parts of Alabama and Mississippi. But nearly one in four Appalachian counties grew at or above the national average. Most of the fastest-growing counties were in southern and south-central Appalachia, although some counties in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia also grew rapidly.

While the proportion of Appalachian residents ages 18 to 24 roughly equals the national average (10 percent), in 122 counties this age group makes up less than 7.5 percent of the population. Most of these counties lie outside metropolitan areas. “The small share of young adults in some counties suggests that these areas may lack economic and educational opportunities for youth making the transition to adulthood,” explained Kelvin Pollard, report co-author and PRB senior demographer.

Population Change by Appalachian County Type, 2000-2010

Source: Appalachian Regional Commission and the Population Reference Bureau, 2011.

Other key findings:

  • The Appalachian region—and most of its 420 counties—has a larger proportion of residents ages 65 and older than does the United States. In fact, older persons make up at least 15 percent of the population in 75 percent of Appalachia’s counties. Most of the counties with older population shares below the national average of 13 percent either house colleges and universities or had growth rates that exceeded the national average.
  • The percentage of children and youth in the Appalachian population is lower than the national average of 24 percent, with the share falling below 20 percent in nearly one-sixth of the region’s counties (mostly outside metropolitan areas). Yet in nearly one in five Appalachian counties, the proportion of children under age 18 exceeds the national average. Most of these counties are in southern Appalachia.
  • Minorities make up 16 percent of the Appalachian region’s population, making it significantly less racially and ethnically diverse than the United States as a whole, where the minority population totals 36 percent. In two-thirds of Appalachian counties, minorities (defined as anyone who identifies with a racial or ethnic group other than “white alone, not Hispanic”) make up less than 10 percent of the population.
  • Many counties with small populations of Hispanics or blacks saw large percentage increases in those groups. Nearly one-third of counties increased their black populations by at least 25 percent, and the black population more than doubled in 48 counties. Meanwhile, Appalachia’s Hispanic population grew 121 percent between 2000 and 2010, which is nearly triple the national growth rate for this group.
  • In all but a handful of Appalachian counties, the share of adults with a bachelor’s degree or more is lower than the national average of 27.5 percent. In fact, in 349 of the region’s 420 counties, less than one-fifth of adults are graduates of a four-year college or university.
  • The number of vacant housing units in Appalachia increased 32 percent between 2000 and 2010—well below the national average of 44 percent. Yet in 122 of the region’s counties, the increase in vacant housing units exceeded the national rate. The vast majority of these were in southern or south central Appalachia—particularly Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

The full report includes detailed tables and county-level maps.

Paola Scommegna is a senior writer/editor at the Population Reference Bureau.