Detailed Findings & Methodology
Certain demographic groups in the United States face a unique set of challenges — and partially as a result, many of the counties on this list are home to high concentrations of these groups. For example, historically, Indian reservations in the United States have been relegated to geographically isolated regions with infertile land and extremely limited economic opportunity. Economic development on reservations is further hindered, as the land is typically owned by the federal government. This means area residents often cannot mortgage their homes for loans the way most American homeowners can.
In eight of the counties on this list, Native Americans account for more than one-third of the population. In Oglala Lakota County, South Dakota — which is entirely within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation — 93% of the population identifies as Native American and more than half of the county’s residents live in poverty.
Non-English speakers and those who speak English as a second language also face unique challenges in the United States — particularly those in school. According to the nonpartisan think tank Pew Research Center, 73% of Americans identifying as Latino speak Spanish at home. In 10 counties on this list, more than 1 resident in 4 identifies as Hispanic or Latino, well above the 17% share of Americans nationwide.
Low incomes and high poverty rates in the counties on this list do not come out of nowhere. Some counties on this list were once economic powerhouses that declined with the industries they were built upon. For example, McDowell County, West Virginia was a leading producer of coal in the first half of the 20th century. The county experienced a heavy economic decline and population loss, however, as the industry contracted.
Today, McDowell County’s 8.4% unemployment rate is more than double the nation’s corresponding rate. A poor job market is not unusual in many poor counties. All told, 38 counties on this list report higher than typical unemployment.
Poor social and economic conditions do not make a given region a particularly attractive place to live. As a result, over the past five years population growth in 40 of the counties on this list has lagged the growth of their states. In 30 of the counties on this list, the number of residents has declined in the last half a decade.