By Sean Gorman December 1, 2014

Jim Webb says poorest U.S. counties are in Appalachia and 90 percent white

Former Sen. Jim Webb recently announced he’s considering a 2016 presidential run and placed economic fairness high on his agenda.

In his video announcement, Webb urged people to travel to inner cities to view the "poverty, crime and lack of opportunity that still affects so many African Americans."

"Or travel to the Appalachian mountains, where my own ancestors settled and whose cultural values I still share, and view the poorest counties in America -- who happen to be more than 90 percent white, and who live in the reality that ‘if you’re poor and white, you’re out of sight,’" Webb said.  

Are the poorest counties in the U.S. located in Appalachia and more than 90 percent white?

We asked Webb for proof. Amy Hogan, Webb’s daughter and occasional spokesperson, sent us links to the WikiPedia pages for Clay County, Ky. and Leslie County, Ky.  -- two Appalachian counties located in the economically-distressed eastern portion of that state.

But Hogan didn’t point to any information that indicates those counties are the poorest in the U.S., although the Clay County WikiPedia page says its per capita income and median household income make it one of the poorest counties in the country.

So we set out on our own search for the poorest counties, relying on data by the U.S. Census Bureau measuring the average yearly wealth from 2008-2012. As our colleagues at PolitiFact National noted in a July story, there are several ways to gauge the poorest counties. We compiled Bottom 10 lists based on three criteria.

Lowest Median Household Income:

  • Owsley County, Ky., $19,624

  • Jefferson County, Miss., $20,281

  • Wolfe County, Ky., $21,168

  • Brooks County, Texas, $21,445

  • McCreary County, Ky., $21,758

  • Hudspeth County, Texas, $22,083

  • Hancock County, Tenn., $22,205

  • Jackson County, Ky., $22,213

  • Clay County, Ky., $22,296

  • Holmes County, Miss., $22,335

Six of these counties are in Appalachia, according to a listing by the congressionally-funded Appalachian Regional Commission -- the five in Kentucky and Hancock County, Tenn. All six have populations that are more than 90 percent white. The two counties in Mississippi are about 85 percent black and the two in Texas are more than 77 percent Hispanic and Latino.

Highest percentage of people below the poverty line:

The only Appalachian county on that list is Wolfe County, Ky., which is 90 percent white. Hudspeth County, Texas is 78 percent Hispanic and Latino. Of the other eight counties, the ones in North and South Dakota are mostly Native American and the ones in Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi are at least two-thirds black.

Lowest per capita income:

  • Wheeler County, Ga., $8,809

  • Shannon County, S.D., $9,136

  • Hancock County, Ga., $11,225

  • Todd County, S.D., $11,417

  • Starr County, Texas, $11,537

  • Jefferson County,  Miss., $11,771

  • Willacy County, Texas, $11,895

  • Zavala County, Texas, $11,919

  • McCreary County, Ky., $12,213

  • Holmes County, Miss., $12,278

There’s one Appalachian locality on this list: McCreary County, Ky., which is 90 percent white.  Hancock County, Ga. is 60 percent white.The counties in  Mississippi are about 85 percent black, the ones in South Dakota are about 90 percent Native American, and those in Texas are at least 87 percent Hispanic and Latino.

In sharing these lists, we don’t mean to downplay the very real existence of poverty in Appalachian counties that span 13 states, including Virginia. The Appalachian Regional Commission says there are 311 U.S. counties that are economically distressed based on measurements of unemployment, poverty and per capita market income. About 10 percent of all U.S. counties fall into this category.

Ninety of the 420 counties in Appalachia are economically distressed. In other words, 21 percent of the counties in the region fall into the category -- more than twice the national average.

Louis Segesvary, a spokesman for the commission, told us the major issue facing these Appalachian communities are their geographic isolation in the mountain range.

Our ruling

Webb said that the poorest U.S. counties are in Appalachia and "happen to be more than 90 percent white."

No doubt, some of the poorest are in Appalachia, particularly eastern Kentucky. But looking at several different measures of county poverty results in a more complex picture than Webb suggests.  

Measured by median household income, overwhelmingly white Appalachian counties comprise six of the 10 U.S. counties with the lowest median household income. But measured by the poverty rate, only one mostly-white Appalachian county ranks in the 10 poorest. The other nine -- in the South, the Dakotas or Texas -- have larger majorities that are either black, Native American, or Hispanic and Latino. That pattern pretty much holds up when you rank the poorest counties by lowest per capita income.

So Webb’s statement is partially accurate, but needs context. We rate it Half True.

Our Sources

Jim Webb’s presidential exploratory committee website, accessed Nov. 20, 2014.

Email from Amy Hogan, spokesman for Jim Webb, Nov. 23, 2014.

Interview with Louis Segesvary, spokesman for the Appalachian Regional Commission, Nov. 25, 2014.

Email from Louis Segesvary, Nov. 25, 2014.

Email from Ally Burleson-Gibson, data dissemination specialist at the Census Bureau, Nov. 25, 2014.

PolitiFact, "Are 97 of the nation’s 100 poorest counties in red states?" July 29, 2014.

U.S. Census Bureau, "State and County quick facts," accessed Nov. 24-25, 2014.

Appalachian Regional Commission, "Counties in Appalachia," accessed Nov. 25, 2014.

Appalachian Regional Commission, "Appalachia’s economy," accessed Nov. 25, 2014.

WikiPedia entry for Clay County, Kentucky accessed Nov. 24, 2014.

WikiPedia entry for Leslie County, Kentucky, accessed Nov. 24, 2014.

The New York Times, "What’s the matter with eastern Kentucky?" June 26, 2014.

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Jim Webb says poorest U.S. counties are in Appalachia and 90 percent white

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