Grundy County, 54 miles northwest of Chattanooga, is one of the 100 hardest places in America to live, according to a recent examination of several data points in counties across the country by The Upshot, a New York Times news and data-analysis venture.
When the individual counties’ relative rank in median household income, college education, unemployment rate, disability rate, life expectancy and obesity are averaged, Grundy ranked 3,045th of 3,135 counties
No other counties in the tri-state area are in the bottom 100, and none is in the top 100.
The closest county to Chattanooga in the top 100 is Forsyth, Ga., at No. 36, a county 116 miles southeast of Chattanooga encompassing wealthy bedroom communities of Atlanta.
Also struggling in the tri-state area, according to the average of data points, are:
• Chattooga County, Ga., No. 2,996
• Meigs County, Tenn., No. 2,932
• Murray County, Ga., No. 2,880
• Bledsoe County, Tenn., No. 2,869
• Rhea County, Tenn., No. 2,859
Hamilton County, meanwhile, is listed in the top half of the country’s counties, at 1,263, and nearly in the top third. Among the state’s four largest counties, it ranks third behind Knox (Knoxville) and Davidson (Nashville) and ahead of Shelby (Memphis).
The Upshot article draws few conclusions, but the writer of a companion piece in Time on the hardest county in which to live (Clay County, Ken.) says the “combination of problems is an overwhelmingly rural phenomenon.”
Where Grundy County varies widely within the data points from the other Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia counties in the bottom 300 is median household income. Grundy’s median household income is $26,644, more than $10,000 lower than that in Murray County ($36,928) and nearly $10,000 lower than that in Rhea County ($36,470).
However, its unemployment rate is lower than that in all of the area’s other lowest-ranked counties, and its percentage of residents with a college degree is higher than most of the area’s lowest-ranked counties, probably because of its close proximity to the University of the South at Sewanee, just over the line in Franklin County.
Its disability rate, life expectancy and obesity rate are all close to the rates in the other area “hardest” counties.
So why the outlier of median household income, which is the third lowest among Tennessee’s 95 counties (ahead of only Lake and Hancock counties)?
With few large industries in the beautiful but mountainous county on the Cumberland Plateau, the largest numbers of Grundy County’s working population are employed in, first, office and administrative support occupations; second, in food preparation and serving related occupations, and third, in sales and related occupations, according to Census data. Further, its top employing industry is educational services — schools.
None of those have the earning capacities of other industries in more urban settings.
Also telling is that 41 percent of employed residents, according to Census data, commute outside their city of residence for work. For many residents, that means off the mountain and out of the county.
And, importantly, of Grundy County’s nearly 11,000-person eligible labor force, more people are not in it (5,517) because they’re retired, can’t find work or have stopped looking for work than people employed in the labor force (4,966). That’s not typical.
So, not surprisingly, a high percentage of county residents (44 percent), mostly retirees, receive what other household income they do have — in addition to wages — from Social Security.
In sum, the low ranking presents a mixed — perhaps even unfair — picture of Grundy County. It is undeniably a beautiful county in which to live but also isolated and without industry that employs large numbers of people. But many people choose to stay for the rural life, some even leaving the Cumberland Plateau to work, and many of those who do stay and can’t or don’t work rely heavily on Social Security for income.
“You either love it or you hate it,” said Grundy County Mayor Lonnie Cleek. “A lot of people have to travel to work, but they love the mountain and they love the scenery. For some, it’s a generational thing. A lot of our aging population used to work in the coal mines. [Those are] gone, but they love the lifestyle and they chose to stay here. There’s not a Walmart on the corner, and you don’t have certain things, but for people who love it, they want to be here.”
So for many, the county may be “hardest” by choice.