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Appalachia Sees Higher Incomes, Lower Poverty Rates, and Boosts in Education, but Still Lags Behind Rest of Nation

New report shows progress and enduring challenges—especially for rural areas

New data released today by PRB and the Appalachian Regional Commission shows that rates of labor force participation, educational attainment, income, and poverty continue to improve in Appalachia.

The 14th annual update of The Appalachian Region: A Data Overview from the 2018-2022 American Community Survey draws from the latest American Community Survey and comparable 2022 Census Population Estimates. Known as “The Chartbook,” the report contains more than 300,000 data points comparing Appalachia’s regional, subregional, state, and county economic status with the rest of the nation.

Key improvements in the region’s economic indicators are as follows.

Increased income and lower poverty rates

  • Poverty rates declined in every Appalachian subregion, state, and type of county (urban and rural). The region’s overall poverty rate (14.3 percent) decreased two percentage points between 2013-2017 and 2018-2022.
  • Median family income increased 9.3 percent between 2013-2017 and 2018-2022, which was on par with national median income growth.
  • All income measures increased for every subregion, state, and type of county (urban and rural)—even after adjusting for inflation.

Higher educational attainment and labor force participation

  • The share of individuals ages 25 and older who held Bachelor’s degrees increased by three percentage points, with more than one in four Appalachian adults reaching or surpassing this level of educational attainment in 2022.
  • Between 2013-2017 and 2018-2022, labor force participation increased in every Appalachian subregion and type of county (urban and rural).

Increased population growth in south

  • Southern Appalachia’s population increased 11.8 percent between 2010 and 2022, which surpassed the nation’s population growth average by more than four percentage points.

Increase in broadband access

  • The share of Appalachian households with at least one computer device rose 8.6 percentage points between 2013-2017 and 2018-2022, while the share with broadband internet access increased by 12.2 percentage points. Both increases surpassed the national average, with federal and state programs designed to narrow persistent gaps in digital resources likely contributing to improvements.

“We celebrate the progress Appalachia has made, including declined poverty rates and increased broadband access. However, we know that there is still much work to be done for our entire region to reach economic parity with the rest of the country,” said ARC Federal Co-Chair Gayle Manchin. “ARC will continue to prioritize the quality of life of Appalachia’s 26 million residents, and remains committed to continued collaboration across federal, state, and local levels to ensure our people have a bright future.”

Despite positive trends, several data points revealed vulnerabilities that emphasize the inequities in Appalachia compared to the rest of the nation:

Overall population decline

  • Nearly 60 percent (252) of the region’s 423 counties saw a population decline between mid-2010 and mid-2022. Rural counties were especially susceptible—77 of the 107 rural Appalachian counties lost residents.

Poverty rates for children and families and specific counties

  • Though regional poverty rates have declined overall, rates have stayed the same or increased in 76 Appalachian counties. Poverty rates are highest for Appalachians under 18 (19.2 percent) and ages 18-24 (22.1 percent).
  • Though the percentage of Appalachian households receiving payments from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) decreased slightly more than the national average, participation was still higher (over 13 percent) compared to all U.S. households (over 11 percent). Participation of Central Appalachian households reached more than 20 percent.
  • For households with children under the age of 18, Appalachia’s SNAP participation rate (21 percent) is nearly three percentage points higher than all U.S. households.

Disability and poverty in older adults

  • Appalachia’s population trends older than the nation as a whole, with individuals ages 65 and older reaching at least 19.5 percent in 292 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. This was also the only age group for which poverty rates increased slightly.

Despite gains in access, digital divides persist

  • Even with higher-than-average increases, Appalachian households still lagged nearly four percentage points behind U.S. rates for broadband subscriptions and device ownership. In 73 Appalachian counties, households were at least 13.3 percentage points below the U.S. average for broadband subscriptions. This gap in high-speed internet connectivity impacts residents’ access to remote work, online learning, telehealth, and more.

“The data in this year’s Chartbook highlight strides being made in the Appalachian Region, with noteworthy improvements across economic, educational, and health-related measures,” said Sara Srygley, a senior research analyst at PRB. “Yet, these data also emphasize considerable variation throughout the region—particularly the persistent challenges facing rural communities.”

The data show that Appalachia’s rural areas continue to be more vulnerable than its urban areas. Appalachia’s 107 rural counties are also more uniquely challenged, compared to 841 similarly designated rural counties across the rest of the U.S. Though rural Appalachians did have higher health insurance coverage than the rest of rural America, rural Appalachian counties continue to lag behind on educational attainment, labor force participation, broadband access, household income and population growth.

The Appalachian Region: A Data Overview from the 2018-2022 American Community Survey was written by PRB and the Appalachian Regional Commission.

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 the rest of rural America’s counties. For more information, visit www.arc.gov/chartbook.

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.