ARC data reveal Appalachia’s economic ups and downs

Published 4:06 pm Tuesday, June 27, 2023

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New data released by the Appalachian Regional Commission for the 13th annual update of The Appalachian Region: A Data Overview from the 2017-2021 American Community Survey indicate that Appalachia continues to improve in educational attainment, labor force participation, income levels, and reduced poverty. Drawing from the latest American Community Survey and comparable Census Population Estimates available as of 2021, ARC’s report, also known as “The Chartbook,” contains more than 300,000 data points comparing Appalachia’s regional, subregional, state, and county levels with the rest of the nation. Key improvements include:

Median household income increased nearly 10 percent between 2012-2016 and 2017-2021, with 93 Appalachian counties throughout the region experiencing 15 percent increases.

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Bachelor’s degrees among individuals ages 25 and over increased by three percentage points, helping the region surpass its milestone of more than one-quarter (26 percent) of residents attaining this level of education.

Appalachia’s labor force participation rates have risen slightly since 2012-2016. Meanwhile, unemployment has declined almost two percentage points—and even more in some parts of the region.

Appalachia’s overall poverty rate (14.5 percent) decreased two percentage points between 2012-2016 and 2017-2021.

Southern Appalachia’s population increased more than 10 percent between mid-2010 and 2021, which surpassed the nation’s population growth average.

“ARC’s annual Chartbook provides a touchstone to the Appalachian Region’s progress, but also acts as a roadmap for where we need to go,” said ARC Federal Co-Chair Gayle Manchin. “By analyzing data from Appalachia’s 423 counties across 13 states, we are better able to celebrate our growth—including income and labor increases—but also know where to best focus our work to achieve economic parity across the region together.”

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

Though regional poverty rates have declined overall, rates have stayed the same or increased in 77 Appalachian counties.

Fewer Appalachian households had a broadband subscription compared to households in non-Appalachian areas. In 42 Appalachian counties, subscriptions were less than 70 percent. This gap in access, even within the region itself, impacts residents’ access to remote work, online learning, telehealth, and more.

Appalachia’s population trends older than the nation as a whole, with individuals ages 65 and older reaching at least 19 percent 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 percent) compared to all U.S. households (over 11 percent), with households in Central Appalachia reaching more than 20 percent.

For households with children under the age of 18, Appalachia’s SNAP participation is higher than the national rate (21 percent compared to 18 percent, respectively).

“While we are making significant progress for our families in Appalachia, it’s important we recognize there is work to be done,” said ARC 2023 States’ Co-Chair Gov. Andy Beshear. “Our families in Eastern Kentucky and across all of Appalachia will continue to remain a priority on the federal, state and local levels. Things like expanding broadband access and building modern infrastructure across this vital region will be game changers for our people and our future.”

“The data in this year’s Chartbook provide a useful snapshot of the recent economic and labor force successes of the Appalachian Region overall, while also highlighting the challenges that persist for some of the hardest to serve populations,” noted Diana Elliott, vice president for U.S. Programs at the Population Reference Bureau (PRB).

The data also show that Appalachia’s rural areas continue to be more vulnerable than its urban areas. In addition, Appalachia’s 107 rural counties are more uniquely challenged compared to 841 similarly designated rural counties across the rest of the U.S. Specifically, rural Appalachia continues to lag behind the rest of rural America on educational attainment, broadband access, household income, and population growth.

To help spur large-scale regional transformation and address Appalachia’s key economic vulnerabilities, ARC launched the Appalachian Regional Initiative for Stronger Economies (ARISE) funding opportunity with support from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. ARISE encourages the region’s 13 states to think beyond local and state lines and act as one, united Appalachia on initiatives advancing ARC’s strategic investment priorities.

The Appalachian Region: A Data Overview from the 2017-2021 American Community Survey was authored by the Population Reference Bureau 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