America’s 10 Poorest Counties Are in Gulf Coast States, Kentucky and on Indian Reservations

By Dan Joseph | December 17, 2010 | 4:05am EST

( - America's 10 poorest counties, both in terms of the percentage of those living below the poverty level and median household income, are located on Indian reservations, in states bordering on the Gulf of Mexico, or in eastern Kentucky. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Small Area Poverty and Income Estimates for 2009, the 10 U.S. counties with the highest percentages of their population living in poverty are:

1. Ziebach County, S.D. – 62 percent of residents in poverty

2. Crowley County, Colo. – 53 percent

3. ShannonCounty, S.D. – 51.6 percent

4. Holmes County, Miss. - 48.4 percent

5. Issaquena County, Miss. - 45.5 percent

6. ToddCounty, S.D. – 45.3 percent

7. MartinCounty, Ky. – 45 percent

8. East Carroll Parish, La. – 44.3 percent

9. HumphreysCounty, Miss. – 44.3 percent

10. ClayCounty, Ky – 43.3 percent

The national average was 14.4 percent (rounded).

Three of  these counties (Ziebach, Shannon and Todd) are located largely within the Cheyenne River, Pine Ridge and Rosebud Indian reservations in South Dakota; four (Holmes, Issaquena, East Carroll and Humphreys) are in Mississippi and Louisiana, while two (Martin and Clay) contain towns in which coal mining still is or has been the major industry.

Crowley County, Colo., had the distinction of being home to the highest percentage of incarcerated prisoners of any county in the U.S., leading to an inflated percentage of those considered to be living in poverty, according to the Census Bureau.

The 10 U.S. counties with the lowest annual median household incomes are:

1. Owsley County, Ky. - $21,177

2. Zavala County, Texas - $21,843

3. ClayCounty, Ky. - $22,255

4. Knox County, Ky. -$22,493

5. Wilcox County, Ala. - $22,611

6. Quitman County, Miss. - $22,625

7. Sumter County, Ala. - $22,857

8. McCreary County, Ky. - $23,163

9. East Carroll Parish, La. - $23,186

10. LeeCounty, Ark. - $23,716

Nationwide, the median annual household income was just over $50,000. 

Four of these counties (Owsley, Clay, Knox and McCreary) are in Eastern Kentucky, in which coal mining is or was the major industry.

In an interview with, Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said that the economic problems in Eastern Kentucky exist despite the coal industry, not because of it.

“Coal provides jobs that tend to start in the $70,000 rage with excellent benefits in those very areas,” said Bissett. “For every coal job three other jobs depend on that one miner for their job. So in many cases, there’s a lack of economic diversity. We mine coal in areas where there isn’t much other industry, either due to topography or by the nature of the terrain but that is one of the major problems as well as transportation infrastructure.”

He warned that recent efforts by the federal government to impose new regulations on the industry could make things in these communities even worse.

“When you harm the coal industry, when you face an overreaching federal government like we face right now in Appalachia that’s a concern, because when you hit coal in those counties, which are already hit hard--especially in times like this--you’re hurting those counties far worse.”

The Census Bureau study released this week contains economic information for every state and county in the United States. Nationwide, 453 of the 3,142 counties in the U.S., experienced an increase in poverty from 2007 to 2009. 

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