Low Education Levels and Unemployment Linked in Appalachia

In 218 of 420 Appalachian counties, the share of working-age adults (ages 25 to 64) with at least a bachelor’s degree failed to reach more than half the national average of 30 percent, according to The Appalachian Region: A Data Overview From the 2006-2010 American Community Survey, a 2012 Appalachian Regional Commission report prepared by the Population Reference Bureau.

“This is a striking indicator of the lower educational level of the Appalachian workforce,” said Kelvin Pollard, PRB senior demographer and co-author of the report. Just 13 percent of working-age adults in central Appalachia (which includes counties in eastern Kentucky, southwestern West Virginia, and western Virginia) had at least a bachelor’s degree, as did only 15 percent of residents of rural Appalachian counties that were not adjacent to metro areas.

The report finds that overall only 23 percent of the working-age population in the Appalachian region had a bachelor’s degree or more—7 percentage points lower than the U.S. average (see figure). (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.)

Percent of Working-Age Adults (Ages 25 to 64) With a Bachelor’s Degree or More, by Appalachian County Type, 2006-2010

Source: Appalachian Regional Commission, The Appalachian Region: A Data Overview From the 2006-2010 American Community Survey (Washington, DC: Appalachian Regional Commission, 2012.

Although unemployment in the region among working-age adults was only slightly higher than the national average of 6.4 percent during the period, it was at least 10 percent in 36 counties. All but two of these counties were outside metropolitan areas, and nearly half were in central Appalachia. “We see indications of a connection between unemployment and educational attainment,” noted Pollard. “In 25 of the 36 Appalachian counties with double-digit unemployment, more than one in five working-age adults lacked a high school diploma.”

Additionally, the report found that in most of the counties with labor force participation rates matching or exceeding the U.S. average, the share of working-age adults with at least a high school diploma was also at or above the national average. Pollard noted that unemployment during the 2006 to 2010 period reflects not just patterns during the 2007 to 2009 economic downturn and post-recession recovery, but also patterns during the years of prerecession economic growth.

There is some good news. The data suggest positive trends in educational attainment, with slight increases in the shares of the population ages 25 and older with a high school diploma and a bachelor’s degree in the 2006 to 2010 period. “The trend toward high school and college completion among young adults is likely continuing,” noted Linda Jacobsen, report co-author and vice-president of Domestic Programs at PRB.

The report examined a variety of social and economic indicators. Other key findings include:

  • The percentage of working-age adults in the region with at least a high school diploma was only slightly below the national average of just over 87 percent. In 127 of Appalachia’s 420 counties, the share matched or exceeded the national average. Nearly half of these 127 counties were outside metropolitan areas, and most were in northern or north-central Appalachia. At the other end of the spectrum, fewer than three in four working-age adults had finished high school in 53 Appalachian counties—almost all of which were outside metropolitan areas, and more than half of which were in central Appalachia.
  • Median household income in Appalachia during the 2006 to 2010 period was $42,498—82 percent of the U.S. median of $51,914. Just 19 Appalachian counties (almost all of them in metropolitan areas) had household incomes at or above the national median. In contrast, median household income was less than $30,000 in 56 Appalachian counties. Most of these counties were either in the most remote rural areas or in central Appalachia.
  • About one in six Appalachian residents lived below the poverty level during 2006 to 2010 (income below $22,113 for a family of two adults and two children in 2010)—nearly 2 percentage points above the U.S. average. The report identified regional and urban/rural patterns: Nearly all of the counties with poverty rates exceeding 20 percent were outside of metropolitan areas, with about half in central Appalachia. In contrast, most of the counties with poverty levels below the U.S. rate were in metropolitan areas, and nearly half were in northern Appalachia.

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