Appalachia has been a byword for backwardness for more than a century. The region has repeatedly been the target of outside intervention to boost its fortunes, including through the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority and Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. But today, market forces—including Sunbelt growth, sprawl, and remote work—are beginning to generate a dynamism in the southern portion of the Appalachian region that is not shared by the north.
The Appalachian mountain range is huge, and the federally designated Appalachian region is similarly large, encompassing 423 counties stretching from a portion of Mississippi not actually located in the mountain range all the way north to New York State. Such an enormous region is typically divided into subregions to help make sense of it. The federal Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) has designated five subregions, for example.
In a new report on the future of Appalachia for the Urban Reform Institute, I propose dividing Appalachia into two major subregions: North Appalachia and South Appalachia, with a dividing line along the northern boundary of Tennessee and North Carolina.
North Appalachia encompasses 235 counties in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia. South Appalachia includes 188 counties in Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.
These two regions show widely diverging demographic and economic trends, with the south far outperforming the north. The gap is likely due to the greater regions in which they are embedded. Population growth has strongly trended toward warm-weather states, especially in the South, in recent decades, whereas growth in the northern parts of the U.S. located east of the 100th meridian has become more stagnant. This trend basically describes the divide between the New South and the Old North.
The ARC classifies 27.2 percent of North Appalachian counties as distressed but only 9.6 percent of South Appalachian counties that way. Over 70 percent of counties in South Appalachia have grown in population since the 2020 Census. North Appalachia lost 17,131 people in total, while South Appalachia gained 127,585. The difference in net in-migration is even more stark. While the North posted positive net domestic in-migration of 22,563, the South tallied almost 300,000—13 times as high. The story is similar for jobs, with the North losing 227,049 positions since the pre-pandemic year of 2019, while the South actually exceeded its pre-Covid levels by 66,377. In other words, much of South Appalachia is seeing a population inflow and is growing in both population and employment.
A Census Bureau map of net migration from earlier this year almost perfectly reveals the new North vs. South Appalachian split. As the map shows, the general migration trend southward is now starting to lift South Appalachia. This pattern does not include to nearly the same degree Kentucky or Virginia, two states usually culturally classified as Southern. The migration has accelerated post-pandemic, potentially because of the shift away from urban centers that economists Arjun Ramani and Nicholas Bloom have called the “donut effect.” The move toward suburbs and exurbs, and even further afield, has been supported by rising housing prices and enabled by remote work, whether full-time or hybrid.
The majority of South Appalachia falls within the suburban or exurban (defined as the two rings of counties beyond the metropolitan edge) regions of a metropolitan area with a population exceeding 500,000. This situation lets them benefit both from sprawl in general and from remote or hybrid work. For example, essentially all of northern Georgia is being integrated into greater Atlanta. Meantime, North Appalachia contains many more regions remote from major metropolitan centers, adding to their challenges.
What’s notable about growth in South Appalachia is that it is happening organically—through market forces, not policy interventions. I have previously observed that the 23-state region I call the Old North has generally experienced slow growth or stagnation, despite wide variation between these states—large vs. small, more urban vs. more rural, liberal vs. conservative, and different cultural regions. Numerous attempts have been made to try to revive the northern Rust Belt, to little avail. That region’s fortunes seem to be deeply tied to structural forces not easily overcome. The same has been true for most of Appalachia. But market forces now finally favor South Appalachian communities, and they are starting to see real growth as a result.
While this new North–South divide doesn’t give us a road map to rekindle growth in other struggling places, it does offer hope. Market forces are always dynamic, and they may yet offer struggling regions a more favorable environment for growth than seems possible today.