Bodie, Ghost town, Courtesy of User: Stockdonkey Via Shutterstock

The Poorest Counties In The United States

Poverty nips at the heels of even the United States within its many regions called 'counties' which make up each of the 50 states. A county is simply a subsection of a state's territory that contains cities, suburbs, rural lands, and the county seat is the center of administration for local issues. Oddly enough, there is a pattern that appears in the financial struggle of many of these counties: quite a few of them underwent massive population displacement during the great migration. In short, 6 million people of color abandoned southern states between 1910 and 1970 due to issues of racial mistreatment and low pay. This prompted a long-lasting economic collapse, which these counties never recovered from.

You might notice that the populations in these regions are fairly low, and agriculture and hunting tend to be the primary uses for these large swathes of land. Still, thousands of people live in these counties and earn just between 17 and 40 thousand dollars in median household income every year. For comparison, the median household income for the entire United States is $69,021. All data was retrieved from the U.S. Census Bureau. Without further ado, read on to understand poverty in 'the wealthiest country in the world.'

Issaquena County, Mississippi - $17,109

A mobile home at Mayersville, Mississippi, in Issaquena County, Mississippi, via TLF Images /
A mobile home at Mayersville, Mississippi, in Issaquena County, Mississippi, via TLF Images /

Holding the title for the least populous county in Mississippi at 1,338, Issaquena County is situated within the Delta region. The county has the Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge partially within its boundaries, which is a cornerstone for local conservation efforts. Covering a stretch of 441 square miles, Issaquena was founded in 1844 and derives its name from the indigenous Choctaw word for "Deer Creek." The county's economy has traditionally revolved around agriculture, with a particular emphasis on cotton farming. The unfortunate reality is that 92.6% of the county's residents were enslaved persons around 1860 — obviously, the mass migration took a large chunk out of the county's revenue. It is important to remember that, although slavery was abolished, mistreatment of formerly enslaved farmers continued long into the 20th century.

Holmes County, Mississippi - $24,958

Tchula, Holmes County, Mississippi,
Tchula, Holmes County, Mississippi, via Bruce Wicks | Flickr

Holmes County finds its place in central Mississippi and is home to the well-frequented Holmes County State Park. The park revolves around fishing and camping, as well as R.V. sites and shelters surrounding two lakes. The county bears the namesake of David Holmes, who served as Mississippi's inaugural governor. Interestingly, the county still has a predominantly African-American demographic despite the population displacement. Lexington, functioning as the county seat, was established in 1836, just three years after the county was created. Beyond its administrative and geographical attributes, Holmes County proudly carries a legacy deeply rooted in Delta Blues music.

Sumter County, Alabama - $27,099

Downtown historic Livingston buildings including the location for the Sumter County Record Journal, via JNix /
Downtown historic Livingston buildings including the location for the Sumter County Record Journal, via JNix /

Positioned in Alabama's west-central zone, Sumter County has the University of West Alabama as one of its notable institutions, specifically located in Livingston. The county pays tribute to General Thomas Sumter through its name. Like many of the counties on this list, Sumter's financial backbone was traditionally based on agriculture and slavery. A northeastern segment of the county also encompasses the Tombigbee River, allowing space for several campgrounds like the Sumter Recreation Area. A special mention goes to Gainesville, a town within Sumter recognized for its well-preserved antebellum-era edifices.

Lee County, Arkansas - $29,082

Main façade of the Lee County Courthouse
Main façade of the Lee County Courthouse, By Brandonrush - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, File:Lee County Courthouse 001.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

In the eastern stretches of Arkansas, right on the Delta, sits Lee County, carrying the namesake of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Marianna is the county seat, and it embodies a classic small town, but currently, it is suffering from a number of closed storefronts. The Mississippi River crosses through the county, which may have helped irrigation over its years of farming activity. While the St. Francis National Forest spreads across its eastern boundary, there are also a number of historical sites protected on the National Register of Historic Places. So, "things to do" remain fairly affordable in spite of Lee County's ongoing economic adversity.

Owsley County, Kentucky - $29,340

Owsley County courthouse in Booneville, By W.marsh - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Owsley County courthouse in Booneville, By W.marsh - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, File:Owsley County Kentucky Courthouse.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Deep in the Eastern Coalfield region of Kentucky, Owsley County emerges with its administrative center in Booneville. This county bears the legacy of William Owsley, an influential Kentucky judge who was born in 1782. Coal mining was a foundational part of the county's economy, and perhaps related (but without certainty) is the 45.6% increase in cancer between 1989 and 2014. That is the largest jump of any county in the USA, and additionally, the county also suffers from the second-highest level of child poverty in the country. Therefore, it bears the weighty title of being among the most economically distressed counties in the country. At the very least, there is a sizable amount of nature to appreciate here, thanks to the crisscrossing of streams and forestry.

Lee County, Kentucky - $29,817

Kentucky Farm, Lee County, Kentucky
Kentucky Farm, Lee County, Kentucky

Southeastern Kentucky plays host to Lee County, another territory gripping the memory of General Robert E. Lee. Beattyville, the center of all the county activities, was originally known as Taylor's Landing because it was a ferry stop on the Kentucky River, which still weaves through the middle of Lee County. Among its attractions, the Backwoods Moonshine Museum stands out with its peculiar collection of authentic 'Beattyville Hillbillies' brewing equipment. Historically, coalmines and lumber were essential to the local economy. Interestingly, although this portion of the state was pro-union in the late 19th century, the town was under the control of Confederate supporters, hence the naming. In a more light-hearted vein, every year, the county enjoys a dash of excitement during the Woolly Worm Festival, which includes worm races, moonshine, and classic cars.

McDowell County, West Virginia - $30,127

McDowell County Courthouse in Welch
McDowell County Courthouse in Welch

McDowell County once buzzed with activity from the extraction of coal, which is also called 'black gold.' However, the downfall of the coal industry resulted in significant economic and population declines. Between 1950 and 2020, the population has plummeted from 100,000 to less than 20,000. This level of upset is related to currently high rates of drug use and a low life expectancy. Welch, its county seat, felt the brunt of this downturn. The county voted to secede during the Civil War in 1861 but was later hailed as "the Free State of Mcdowell," which possibly refers to the relative civil freedom the county provided to African Americans. Unfortunately, the county's past economic strength, driven by coal, has not found a modern successor, but hopefully, the future has more answers available than the present.

Lake County, Tennessee - $34,923

Lake County Courthouse in Tiptonville
Lake County Courthouse in Tiptonville, By Flickr user chiacomo -, CC BY 2.0, File:Lake County Tennessee Courthouse.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Marking its spot in the northwest corner of Tennessee, Lake County is most famous for Reelfoot Lake, a remarkable product of the earthquakes of 1811-12. Tiptonville, the county seat, sits close to this natural water feature. The darkness of the county's history revolves around mob violence and lynchings of African Americans, as well as 'night riding.' This term refers to militant terrorist activities performed by tobacco farmers, who attacked individual farms if the owners did not support the Night Rider's movement against the ATC (American Tobacco Company) monopoly. Today, low employment opportunities are the cause of Lake County's current troubles.

Buffalo County, South Dakota - $38,523

Truck driving over the Missouri River in South Dakota on a long bridge.
Truck driving over the Missouri River in South Dakota on a long bridge.

Buffalo County in central South Dakota was once a realm ruled by vast buffalo herds, hence its name. With one of the smallest populations for a county seat in the U.S., Gann Valley is a quiet and unassuming town, and it sits firmly over the Missouri River. A segment of the Crow Creek Indian Reservation makes up the majority of the county in terms of both population and area. Various forms of farming dominate the landscape here, as vast stretches of land are designated for cattle and other livestock. Sadly, its distinction as one of the nation's poorest counties stems from the reality that 41% of its citizens are stuck in poverty, and many households do not benefit from plumbing or indoor kitchens.

Martin County, Kentucky - $40,826

Martin County Government Center, Inez, Nyttend, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Martin County Government Center, Inez, Nyttend, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the eastern stretches of Kentucky, Martin County has faced blows from the collapse of the coal industry. Despite this, the current population of 11,095 has not suffered an extreme drop, although its high was 13,925 in 1980. Besides having its county seat in Inez, the county draws its name from the influential Congressman John Preston Martin. For years, coal mining anchored the local economy but has had challenges other than industry collapse. A dark chapter in Martin County's history, the Martin County Coal Slurry Spill in 2000 saw 306 million U.S. gallons of toxic slurry pour into Tug Fork River. There is one positive mark worthy of mention: the county is the proud origin of country icon Loretta Lynn. 

Poverty comes in many forms, and it is a shame for it to occur in one of the richest countries in the world. Infrastructure and investment into crime and drug abuse prevention, as well as employment opportunities, are two of the immediate responses that might provide positive results. One striking observation is that much of the poverty in the U.S. is historical, with roots that go back to systems of slavery and segregation. It seems apparent that this civil rights issue, both social and economic, has not entirely been resolved if citizens are still suffering from the consequences.


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