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New report shows Appalachia made economic gains before COVID-19 pandemic

Courtesy of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy
Peters Mountain

A new report by the Appalachian Regional Commission reveals that the Appalachian region as a whole made economic improvements in recent years.

The report by the ARC looks at Appalachia from 2016 to 2020 and shows that Appalachia was improving in educational attainment, labor force participation, income levels, and reduced poverty prior to the onset of COVID-19 in March 2020. The region as a whole was faring better than it has since the Great Recession of 2008, but some Appalachian counties showed signs of decline, particularly in the early months of the pandemic.

In these areas, broadband access is lower than in other regions across the country, as is workforce participation. However, the pandemic did bring more people into some parts of Appalachia, as more people moved into rural areas from urban areas, where the cost of living is often higher.

“A bunch of people moved from cities who said, ‘hey property’s cheaper and I can live anywhere.’ Because work life has completely changed for everybody,” said Jim King, president and chief executive of Fahe, a network of more than 50 nonprofits that funds about $330 million each year in Appalachia. He said the right investments, like high-speed broadband, could keep new residents here.

Historically, King said, investments from private companies and philanthropies have lagged in Appalachia compared with the rest of the country.

He noted that new funding from the Build Back Better and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act could help, if communities use the funding to invest in long-term solutions, like workforce development, affordable housing, and broadband access.

Key takeaways from the ARC report show that between 2016-2020:

  • The average household income increased in many Appalachian Counties.
  • Appalachia’s overall poverty rate decreased
  • Labor force participation (73.8 percent), though lower than the national average, increased by 1.1 percentage points between 2011-2015 and 2016-2020, surpassing the national average increase of 0.8 percentage points.
  • Bachelor’s degrees among individuals ages 25 and over increased by 2.8 percentage points, helping the region reach a milestone of more than one-quarter (25.4 percent) of residents attaining this level of education
Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.