The Poverty Problem in the Rural Mountain Communities of WNC

More and more people living in poverty in rural Western North Carolina

The gap is widening between WNC’s rural and statewide poverty rates, with some mountain counties facing nearly double the national rate.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the “War on Poverty” led by United States President Lyndon B. Johnson who, in 1964, launched legislative efforts to reduce the number of Americans living in poverty, which was nearly 1 out of every 5 people in country.

Considering that anniversary, Carolina Public Press takes an in-depth look at poverty across the 18 westernmost counties of North Carolina, especially in the region’s rural areas. In Western North Carolina, rural residents account for 70.8 percent of the region’s total population. They also live in 90.9 percent of the overall area.

Buncombe County is WNC’s only urban county, as classified by the White House, since it is home to the metro region of Asheville, the region’s largest city. With a countywide population of nearly 248,000, the county has typically recorded poverty rates similar to those found statewide.

But the story is much different elsewhere in the mountain region.

Despite national efforts to eliminate poverty, data show that, in 2012, the average rate of poverty in the rural counties of Western North Carolina was 20.3 percent — even higher than 50 years ago, when the national rate prompted new public policies across the country. This represents an increase of 6.3 percentage points over the past decade alone.

In fact, the poverty rate in the region’s rural counties has been higher than state and national levels for the 10 years.

And, since 2003, this gap has widened significantly. These rural counties went from 1.5 points above the national average in 2003 to 4.4 points above in 2012.

Steph Guinan/Carolina Public Press
Steph Guinan/Carolina Public Press

But what does “poverty” mean today?

The federal government does not define poverty solely by household income. Instead, it is a combination of household income, the number of people in a household and the ages of household members. Based on the combination of these factors, in 2012 the poverty threshold ranged between incomes of $11,011 for one individual over 65 years old and $51,095 for a household with nine or more people including one minor. For a family of four, the poverty threshold is $23,283.

“The cost of living keeps climbing,” said Mitchell County resident Kat Gouveia. “I sometimes have such a feeling of hopelessness.”

Gouveia is part of the long-term unemployed population who has been unable to find work due the lack of available opportunities.

“Mostly, it is degrading to be unemployed; then coupled with the financial stress, (it’s) overwhelming to say the least,” she said. “Most employers only offer 12 to 15 hours a week.”

Living in a remote location often means that having a vehicle is an essential expense. Without it, life can be isolating.

“There is also no public transportation in these mountains,” she continued. “Gas is high if you do have transportation. I can only leave my house once every few weeks; I have to stay local.”

“When you are unemployed and do not have much of an income you eventually get disconnected from friends,” Gouveia said. “This happened to me — probably due to depression.”

Geographically, there is roughly a higher poverty rating in counties farther from the metropolitan hub of Buncombe County. This trend supports the widely recognized pattern showing that isolation and access are infrastructure challenges connected to poverty levels.

Steph Guinan/Carolina Public Press
The 2012 poverty figures were released by the U.S. Census Bureau in September 2013, representing the most current rates available. Steph Guinan/Carolina Public Press

Across Western North Carolina, the lowest poverty rates in the region were in Transylvania and Henderson counties, with both ranking just below the national level of 15.9 percent.

Watauga County recorded the highest poverty level in the area in 2012, the most current rates available, with 29.5 percent of the population living in poverty. The Mountain Times reported in a March 2014 article that “some skeptics of the rising poverty rate blame Appalachian State University’s student population for potentially skewing the numbers and making the rate much higher than what it really is.”

The article cited Todd Carter, director of development at Hospitality House, as saying the county’s high poverty is more likely to be tied to the lack of full-time employment opportunities and limited affordable housing. It is still unclear the impact of the college population on Watauga County’s elevated poverty rate, but nearly 40 percent of the population living in poverty in the county has had some college education, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

The county in the region with the second-highest poverty rate is Cherokee County, at a 25.1 percent. This was a significant increase from a 2011 poverty rate of 18.0 percent. In this county – which is the farthest county west in the state and home to the town of Murphy and a new casino under construction – the estimated median worker earnings was $34,981, according to the five-year estimate released by the Census Bureau’s American Communities Survey in 2012.

William Morris Log Cabin, Saluda, N.C. Image courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress
William Morris Log Cabin, Saluda, N.C. Image courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress

Trends in Poverty

Rural poverty in the South is a persistent and systematic problem. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that, in 2012, the rural South’s poverty rate averaged 22.1 percent. That compared to between 13.6 percent and 16.2 percent in other rural regions of the country.

Patrick Woodie
Patrick Woodie, N.C. Rural Economic Development Center

Patrick Woodie, the interim president the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center, explained that, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, poverty rates were much lower than the rates of the mid-60s when the War on Poverty began.

“A lot began to happen with the economy with the recession of 2000 and 2001,” Woodie said. “You can look historically at past recessions, the post WWII recessions, and they all looked pretty much alike.

“You had a dramatic dip for a relatively short duration, and the economy bounced back fairly quickly to pre-recession levels and sort of continued to improve and to climb.”

Explaining the recent increases in statewide poverty rates, Woodie said: “Beginning with the 2000-2001 recession, that rebound didn’t really occur. And the lack of a rebound is even more pronounced when we look at the 2008 Great Recession.”

Steph Guinan/Carolina Public Press
Steph Guinan/Carolina Public Press

The Working Poor

Although the poverty figures in WNC’s communities are high, they may actually underestimate the population of people living in need.

In the 11th Congressional District of North Carolina, which encompasses much of Western North Carolina and is now represented by Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, 43 percent of households that participated in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) during fiscal year 2011 were above the poverty line. This equates to more than 15,000 people who are not considered to be in poverty but who still require food assistance.

Of the 35,257 households in the congressional district who do receive food assistance, only 22.6 percent of households recorded no employment during the previous 12 months. The remaining 77.4 percent of those receiving assistance had some type of employment during the year.

The Asheville organization Just Economics is working to address the struggles of the working poor by advocating for a living wage. According to its definition, a living wage is “the minimum amount that a worker must earn to afford his or her basic necessities, without public or private assistance.”

Since 2009, the national minimum wage has been $7.25 per hour. Calculating 40 hours per week at 52 weeks a year, this totals an annual wage of $15,080 before taxes.

Just Economics identifies a 2013 living wage for a single individual living in Western North Carolina to be several dollars higher, at $11.85 per hour without benefits or $10.35 per hour with employer-provided health insurance. Annually, this totals between $21,528 and $24,648, nearly $10,000 higher than minimum wage.

Vicki Meath, Just Economics
Vicki Meath, Just Economics

“We define poverty as being below the federal poverty guidelines,” said Just Economics Executive Director Vicki Meath. “But when we actually looked, people aren’t meeting their basic needs until they were at least somewhere about 200 percent of the guidelines for their family size.”

Using a broader definition of poverty, “we get a much greater understanding of how many people in our communities are struggling,” she said.

Some say the cause is out-of-date measures of what poverty actually means today.

In his book, “The Working Poor,” David Shipler wrote that “the Census Bureau still uses the basic formula designed in 1964 by the Social Security Administration, with four modest revisions in subsequent years.”

The original poverty measures were established by calculating food costs to be one third of living expenses, for example.

“It is no longer valid today, when the average family spends only one-sixth of its budget for food,” Shipler said. He surmises that although the 50-year old formula has been adjusted for inflation, it is “overlooking nearly half a century of dramatically changing lifestyles.”

Just Economics states that in Buncombe County alone, 34 percent of low-wage workers are employed in food service occupations and 22 percent are retail sales workers. According to its website, “These jobs pay between $8 and $10 an hour and typically don’t offer benefits of any kind.”

In the rural counties of the Western North Carolina, wages tend to be even lower than those in urban areas, and often, living costs are also lower. However, data show that these remote areas are likely seeing fewer opportunities and stagnant — if not decreasing —  job markets.

As the data show that rural poverty in WNC continues to increase, the numbers also revealing the reality that a growing percent of residents are struggling to meet even their most basic needs.

Coming next: The second part of this series on rural poverty will look at how the job market and the economy shape the rural poor as well as indicators such as education and physician density.

Editor’s note: Steph Guinan was awarded the McGraw-Hill Data Journalism Award by International Center for Journalists in March 2014 for a version of this series.

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Steph Guinan is a contributing data visualization reporter with Carolina Public Press. Contact her at

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