Home > F. Politics & the Velvet Revolution, West Virginia > West Virginia–How Poor?

West Virginia–How Poor?

West Virginia has long been one of those states synonymous with poverty. Word of mouth supplies horror stories aplenty to people like myself who live on the edge of the state (in Berkeley County, part of the Eastern Panhandle): people living in abandoned buses, counties that are burdened by annual average incomes under $7,000, and on and on. So RT has been checking into the statistics recently. And, as it turns out, the picture is more mixed than one might have thought. Bright spots include Monongalia County (home to the University of West Virginia’s main campus); the state’s Eastern Panhandle; and Putnam County.

But, as the map above (compiled by the Appalachian Regional Commission) shows, there are also definite trouble spots, and in particular, the center and south of the state. Here things are troubling, indeed, especially at the state’s southern end, which includes McDowell County–by ARC’s reckoning, the county in Appalachia with the third highest poverty rate. In 2003, 37.7% of the county’s residents were living below the poverty line (as compared to Putnam, where 9.3% of residents lived below the poverty line). Median household income was $21,574.

How does this compare to counties nationwide? The median household income for Douglas County, Colorado, was $82,929 (2010 federal census), with 2.1% of the population living below the poverty line. To be fair, Douglas County is one of the 10 richest counties in the country.

On the other end of the spectrum, we might consider the eastern region of Kentucky, which has 16 of the poorest counties in the country. To take one of  these counties, Wolfe County, which is not the poorest: the median family income was $19,310, with 35.90% of residents living below the poverty line.

And for the record, according to the Wikipedia Page I’m using, Kalawao County, Hawaii, is the poorest county in the nation, ranked by median household income.

The causes of poverty are complex, and it should always be borne in mind that quality of life can be extremely difficult to measure. By way of giving us some idea of where West Virginia stands, RT has linked to a chart listing West Virginia at number 38 (tied with Georgia) in a quality-of-life ranking by state.

Is there room for real improvement? While RT applauds the many organizations working to eradicate poverty and improve quality of life in the United States, he has wondered for some time now why we don’t have a national Poorest Counties Initiative, aimed at ensuring the basics: access to a nutrious diet, protection from the elements (be they hot or cold), and access to medical care. Such an initiative might help West Virginia (not to mention Kentucky) close the gap with richer states.


Map: Counties of West Virginia by Economic Category; WikiCmns; Public Domain; Source: Appalachian Regional Council.

  1. April 6, 2012 at 3:11 am

    Hey RT, you’re touching on a subject that’s been on my mind a great deal lately. It is distressing to see so many Americans living in poverty without many of the basics that lead to a healthy life- especially nutritious food and medical care. Having been one of those families living below the poverty level for sometime, I know the desperation of going without and feeling like you might never dig your way out…and I know many never do. Thankfully, my family was able to find the way out of poverty. I do believe that communities need to work towards helping those in need, but I tend to feel that we need to look to ourselves and rally those in the community that are capable of helping rather than turning to the federal government to organize some kind of relief effort. As a person who has had to ask for and utilize government assistance in the past, I understand the sacrifices in terms of privacy and dignity that an individual has to make in order to receive help. I guess what I’m getting at is that I feel individuals end up exchanging one set of troubles for another when the federal government becomes the benefactor. I do see, though, the definite need for some type of intervention…I’d love to see more organization by individuals within communities working to help those in need. Great to read your ideas on this.

    • April 6, 2012 at 7:39 pm


      Thanks for your thoughtful response to this post. I’m sorry to hear that your family had to endure the challenges of poverty, and I expecially value your thoughts on this subject because you have have experienced these realities firsthand.

      We live in a society that frowns on people who ask for help; in America, you’re supposed to be able to bootstrap yourself out of your own problems. What is missing from this perspective is the fact that people’s resources and circumstances vary enormously. Some people have the intelligence, persistance, and plain feistiness to get themselves back on their feet; others don’t. And then there are psychological issues, such as I myself experienced during my late 20s and early 30s, where the intervention of a psychiatrist is critical to recovery. And that doesn’t take account of plain old physical ailments.

      The other reality is the scope of the problem. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation–the largest foundation in the world–has instituted a wonderful program to fight homelessness in Washington State, where they live. Why haven’t they extended this program to all states? Because of the expense. The foundation’s site explains that if the B&MGF paid all the social service expenses incurred by Washington State alone, its endowment would be exhausted in 5 years.

      Wow! There is no way to beat the power of taxation to raise the funds needed to deal with large-scale social problems.

      Of course, local efforts are also crucial to taking care of those people living through a financial emergency. And money is not the only resource needed to help heal families and communities. But money is the bottom-line requirement for any serious effort at addressing these problems.

      And still, when all is said and done, the stigma attached to asking for cash and food assistance in this country is considerable.

      Thanks, Emma, again, for sharing your thoughts & experiences.


  2. April 7, 2012 at 2:20 am


    A final thought: flooding a poor county with money can easily be catstrophic. What is needed is services, not money that raises local prices & forces people out. RT

    • April 7, 2012 at 11:37 am

      All great points, RT. I’ve thought a good bit about both sides of the coin and I always find good (and not so good) answers on both sides. It’s a consequence of living in an imperfect world, I suppose. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and ideas…I do love a good back and forth. ~ Emma

  3. Katrina
    April 8, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    I’m also originally from West Virginia. I’ve only been in New Mexico for about 3 years, still adjusting if you know what I mean 😉 Great to find someone who won’t think I talk funny.

    • April 9, 2012 at 8:12 pm

      Katrina: yes, I’ve got no problem with a WV accent, and good luck in New Mexico–I understand it has issues with poverty too, but in a very different setting…I predict you’ll put down roots quicker than you think! RT

  1. May 23, 2013 at 7:55 pm

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