Rural Appalachia Compared to the Rest of Rural America

Of the Appalachian Region’s 420 counties, 107, or one-fourth, are classified as rural—counties that are neither part of nor adjacent to a metropolitan area. Of the 25.7 million people that live in Appalachia, almost 2.5 million, or nearly 10% of residents, live in rural counties. How does the Appalachian rural experience compare to the 840 other similarly designated rural counties in the U.S.? Data show that Appalachia’s rural counties lagged behind these areas in most indicators, with residents finding themselves in more vulnerable economic positions pre-COVID-19.  

Explore top takeaways below and this table of data point comparisons.  

Rural County Designations

Rural counties are found in each of the 13 states in the Appalachian Region except Maryland and South Carolina. However, there are higher concentrations of rural counties in several states including Mississippi, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. 

Rural-Urban County Types in Appalachia

Rural Counties in the U.S.

The Appalachian region consists of 205,000 square miles across 13 states and includes both rural counties and major metropolitan areas. A comparison of rural counties within Appalachia with those located outside the region revealed that the population in rural Appalachian counties is older and less diverse and has been declining in number faster since 2010 than the population in rural counties in the rest of the country. With the exception of health insurance coverage, rural Appalachian counties continue to lag behind rural counties in the rest of the U.S.

Rural County Comparisons

Population and Demographics

Appalachia trends older and has been declining faster since 2010. Though it has a smaller minority population, rural Appalachia does lead the rest of rural America in its growing African American population. Approximately 7.8% of rural Appalachia’s population is Black, while only 6.5% of rural America’s population is.

Education

Within the Region, the high school completion prevalence among adults ages 25 and over increased the most in Central Appalachia and in Appalachia’s most rural counties. With these improvements, the share of adults completing high school as of 2015-2019 has reached 79% in Central Appalachia and 81% in the Region’s rural areas. Central Appalachia, Appalachian Kentucky, Mississippi, and Virginia, and the Region’s most rural counties, had the greatest improvement in the share with at least a high school diploma. 

employment

The percentage of rural Appalachian adults ages 25 to 64 in the civilian labor force is about nine percentage points lower than in rural counties outside the Region. 

The unemployment rate in rural Appalachia is also slightly higher than rural non-Appalachian regions, at 5.3% versus 4.2%.

Income and Poverty

Median household income in rural Appalachian counties is more than $9,000 below that of households in rural counties in the rest of the country. 

The share of rural Appalachian residents living in poverty is five percentage points higher than the share in rural counties outside the Region, and this gap is even wider among children (about seven percentage points).

The lower levels of education and employment among adults in rural Appalachia are reflected in lower levels of income and higher rates of poverty than in rural counties outside the Region. 

Computer Device and Broadband Access