Lowest per capita income in Tennessee

Among the nine counties deemed to be distressed by the Appalachian Regional Commission, the per capita income in 2017 for each county was less than half the national average.

1. Hancock, $15,282, or 35.7% of U.S. average

2. Bledsoe, $17,015, or 39.7% of U.S. average

3. Scott, $17,277, or 40.3% of U.S. average

4. Grundy, $18,218, or 42.5% of U.S. average

5. Jackson, $18,639, or 43.5% of U.S. average

6. Frentress, $18,817, or 43.9% of U.S. average

7. Morgan, $18,856, or 44% of U.S. average

8. Clay, $19,528, or 45.6% of U.S. average

9. Cocke, $19,771, or 46.1% of U.S. average

Source: Appalachian Regional Commision. Distressed counties are those ranking the among the 10 percent worst for per capita income, unemployment and poverty rates.

Despite a decline in poverty rates across the South, the share of people living in poverty in Appalachia was nearly 12 percent higher than the U.S. average last year, according to a new federal report.

In its new economic status designation released Tuesday, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) said poverty in its 13-state region fell by 0.4 percentage points to 16.3% while the national poverty rate fell by 0.5 percentage points to 14.6%.

To determine the economic status of each of the 420 counties in the ARC service region, the commission ranks counties based upon a 3-year average of unemployment, poverty and per capita income. The number of distressed counties in the region — defined as those in the bottom 10% of all U.S. counties for income, poverty and jobles rates — fell to the lowest level since 2008 this year.

Among the 80 distressed counties across Appalachia, nine are in Tennessee, including Bledsoe and Grundy counties in Southeast Tennessee.

"Parts of the Appalachian Region face significant economic challenges compared to the rest of the country," ARC Federal Co-Chair Tim Thomas said in a report Tuesday. "ARC and our state partners use this data to direct critical investments toward distressed areas, and I am pleased to see net improvements in many parts of the region compared to previous years."

The ARC was created in 1965 to help aid 420 counties in Appalachia. The federal agency supported 41 projects in Tennessee totaling over $9 million in fiscal year 2018. Those investments were matched with more than $7.8 million and are projected to collectively attract an additional $378.5 million in leveraged private investments in Tennessee.

The ARC-backed projects last year were expected to create or retain 2,100 jobs and educate over 2,200 students and workers. in Tennessee's 52 Appalachian counties.

Despite the improving economy, many rural counties of Tennessee continue to have incomes less than half of the national rate with about one of every five persons living in poverty, according to the ARC report.

In Bledsoe County, per capita income in 2017 was $17,015, or less than 40% of the U.S. average. Unemployment in Bledsoe County from 2015 to 2017 averged 6.9%.

In Grundy County, per capita income during the 3-year period studied averaged $18,128, or less than 44% of the U.S. average. Unemployment in Grundy County averaged 6.4% from 2015 to 2017.

Grundy County Mayor Michael Brady said ARC grants have helped to provide utility service, health care, road connections and educational training to many remote rural communities where the cost of such public improvements is much higher for the local tax base to absorb.

"We are making some improvements in our economic growth with some some new industry and more tourism, but the ARC is critical for a lot of us in rural areas to be able to get the infrastructure in place," Brady said. "We have an industrial park that is well located (in Pellam, Tennessee) with more than 40 acres of developable land and hopefully we will see even more growth. But it is a challenge and the ARC has been a great help for us."

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 757-6340.