The poverty rates in nine Eastern Kentucky counties were among the 30 highest in the nation in 2016, according to new U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
The rate in Owsley County was third-highest in the country, at 45.2 percent, the agency estimated.
The highest rate in the U.S. was in Todd County, S.D., at 48.6 percent, and next was Crowley County, Col., at 48 percent, according to the report released Thursday.
The other Kentucky counties in the group with the highest estimated poverty rates were Clay, Martin, McCreary, Knox, Lee, Bell, Knott and Harlan.
Several have been hit hard by a sharp downturn in the coal industry, which has wiped out more than two-thirds of the coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky since 2011.
The estimates illustrate the challenge as officials, educators and business people work to diversify the economy and counteract the downturn.
There are some promising developments, such as growth in work-from-home jobs and projects to improve roads, but still not enough economic opportunity in the region, said Owsley County Judge-Executive Cale Turner.
“There’s not enough jobs, definitely not,” said Turner, a Democrat.
The Census Bureau’s report, which it does annually, is the only source of single-year estimates on poverty and median household income at the county and school-district levels, according to the agency.
Other estimates consider multiple years.
The report, which covers 3,141 counties, is important because it is used in allocating federal aid to local governments and school districts.
The lowest estimated poverty rate in the country in 2016 was in Douglas County, Col., at 3.4 percent.
The report said that from 2015 to 2016, more U.S. counties saw a decrease in the poverty rate than an increase.
But taking a longer view, the poverty rate went up in more counties than it went down between 2007 and 2016.
Of all the people in the country considered poor, 41.5 percent live in the South; 23.3 percent in the West; 19.7 percent in the Midwest; and 15.4 percent in the Northeast.
Nearly 40 percent of the counties in the South had a poverty rate above 20 percent in 2016.
The report also estimated median household income — the point with half of households making more and half making less.
Again, several counties in Eastern Kentucky were in the group of 30 with the lowest figures.
The median household income in Owsley County was $23,115. The top number was in Loudoun County, Va., in the Washington, D.C metro area, at $134,609, according to the report.
Kentucky as a whole had the fifth-highest poverty rate at 18.2 percent, behind Mississippi, Louisiana, New Mexico and Washington, D.C.
The state’s median household income was sixth-lowest in the country, at $46,610, according to the Census report.
Turner said such estimates give only a partial picture of life in a county because they don’t take into account factors such as a lower cost of living.
And he said the county’s numbers would likely be better now than the period covered in the report.
He pointed to more than 100 residents who have gotten jobs since mid-2016 through a program called Teleworks USA, which trains people to work from home in customer-service jobs such as taking reservations for UHaul or orders for products.
That has been possible because Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative installed fiber-optic lines to make internet speeds up of up to one gigabit per second available to very home and business in Owsley and Jackson counties.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people that have these jobs and they’re thrilled,” Turner said.
The teleworks jobs will be one piece of diversifying the region’s economy, but it will take other approaches as well, Turner said, including training so people can qualify for higher-paying online jobs.
“There has to be more,” Turner said.