ARC Releases New Data Showing Improving Trends and Economic Vulnerabilities Prior to COVID-19

“The Chartbook” features more than 300,000 data points on Appalachia’s economy, income, employment, education, and other indicators to serve as future baseline for COVID-19 analysis.

WASHINGTON, D.C., June 10, 2021—Data from the 11th annual update of The Appalachian Region: A Data Overview from the 2015–2019 American Community Survey, released today, indicate that Appalachia was improving in educational attainment, higher income, and reduced poverty prior to COVID, yet continued to lag behind the rest of the nation in broadband access, population health, and other key indicators. Drawing from the latest American Community Survey and comparable Census Population Estimates available as of 2019, the report, also known as “The Chartbook,” contains more than 300,000 data points on Appalachia’s regional, subregional, state, and county levels with comparisons to the rest of the nation. Though Chartbook data were collected pre-COVID, the report will offer a reliable benchmark and comprehensive base of comparison when COVID-related data become available. 

In years leading up to the COVID-19 crisis, the data show that Appalachia was making improvements in education, income, and reduced poverty:

  • Though the Region’s median household income was 82.6 percent of the U.S. figure, income increased 8 percent between 2010-2014 and 2015-2019. Furthermore, it rose at least 15 percent in 59 counties scattered throughout the Region.
  • The share of Appalachian residents in poverty fell two percentage points between 2010-2014 and 2015-2019.
  • The population in Southern Appalachia grew by 7.6 percent, surpassing the national average for population growth at 6.1 percent.
  • Educational attainment among Appalachia’s working-age adults improved since 2010-2014, with a rising share of residents earning a bachelor’s degree or more. Additionally, Appalachia continues to surpass national averages for attainment of associate’s degrees.

“The annual data shared in The Chartbook play an important role in helping policymakers and other ARC partners make informed and effective development decisions to transform the economic health of Appalachia,” said ARC Federal Co-Chair Gayle Manchin. “While we were encouraged by the pre-COVID-19 data pointing to improvements in educational attainment, reduced poverty, and increased income in certain parts of our Region, it is essential that we keep a pulse on how the pandemic impacted our Region—and we must pivot to meet the needs of our residents accordingly. Regardless of the improvements we see, The Chartbook points to key areas—such as lagging broadband access and increased health vulnerabilities— that make our Region even more susceptible to the domino effect of COVID-19, especially in the rural communities of Appalachia.”

Despite positive trends, several data points revealed vulnerabilities that were likely exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19:

  • The Appalachian Region’s population trends older than the nation as a whole, with persons age 65 and older exceeding 20 percent in 236 Appalachian counties. Additionally, the percentage of Appalachians ages 65 and over with a disability is more than three percentage points higher than the national rate. The prevalence of older and disabled residents likely made these counties more susceptible to the health impacts of COVID-19. 
  • The percentage of working-age adults with a bachelor’s degree was 15.2 percent in Central Appalachia and 17.6 percent in rural Appalachian counties, compared to 33.5 percent for the entire U.S. The prevalence of non-college educated workers in these areas likely resulted in less remote work opportunities during the pandemic and could result in greater difficulty finding post-pandemic employment.
  • Though regional poverty rates have declined overall, rates have stayed the same or increased in 95 counties.
  • In 2015-2019, 78 percent of Appalachian households had a broadband Internet subscription compared to 83 percent nationally. In 18 counties, subscriptions were less than 60 percent. This gap in access, even within the Region itself, certainly had an impact on residents trying to access remote work, online learning, telehealth, and more.  

“The pre-COVID-19 data is promising that the improvements and investments being made in the Appalachian Region are positively impacting the community and increasing the quality of life for the residents, but as we have seen in all parts of the country, the pandemic has affected that positive trajectory,” said Virginia Governor and ARC States’ Co-Chair Ralph Northam. “The Chartbook provides key data that will help chart the course for the Appalachian Region moving forward as we head towards pandemic recovery and addressing the barriers in the communities of the Region.”

Appalachia’s rural areas are not only more vulnerable than urban areas, but the Region’s 107 rural counties also find themselves more uniquely challenged compared to 840 similarly designated rural counties in the rest of the country. 

  • 80.5 percent of households in rural Appalachia have access to one or more computer devices (including a smartphone and tablet), compared to 85.5 percent of non-Appalachian rural households.
  • Additionally, only 70.7 percent of rural Appalachian households have an internet subscription, compared to 75.3 non-Appalachian rural households.
  • The number of working-age (ages 25 to 64) adults in rural Appalachia with a Bachelor’s degree or more increased by 1.6 percentage points from 2010-2014 to 2015-2019 to reach 17.6 percent, compared to 22 percent for non-Appalachian rural individuals.
  • Nearly one-quarter (22.9 percent) of working-age adults ages 35 to 64 and 42.9 percent of adults ages 65 and older have a disability in rural Appalachia, compared to 16.5 percent and 37.9 percent, respectfully, in non-Appalachian rural regions.
  • 17.5 percent of persons ages 26 to 34 do not have health insurance coverage compared with 19.3 percent in non-Appalachian rural regions, situating young adults in a vulnerable position before the pandemic.

“The data in the Chartbook underscore the uneven social and economic progress in the Appalachian Region over the last decade. As the Region continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, the challenging economic prospects for young workers without college degrees and the digital divide in rural communities will be two areas of concern for policymakers,” said report co-author Linda A. Jacobsen, vice president of U.S. Programs at PRB.

In addition to the written report, ARC has also released companion web pages on Appalachia’s population, employment, education, income and poverty, computer and broadband access, and rural Appalachian counties compared the rest of rural America’s counties.

The Appalachian Region: A Data Overview from the 2015–2019 American Community Survey was authored by the Population Reference Bureau with the Appalachian Regional Commission. 

About the Appalachian Regional Commission
The Appalachian Regional Commission ( is an economic development agency of the federal government and 13 state governments focusing on 420 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.