Wise County, located in the coal fields region of western Virginia, comprises a mix of small towns and rural areas. Its population of 39,925 lives in the hills and within and outside its many small towns. An isolated area, there is little opportunity for tourism as well as poor access to road transport. Historically, coal alone supported the county until technological advances in mining emerged in the late 1980's and early 1990's. Now that the same amount of coal can be mined with far fewer workers, there are very few mining jobs left, and no new industries have emerged to employ the displaced coal labor force. Just under 18 percent of employees in Wise County still work in coal mining.
While most of Virginia and the rest of the country have been experiencing an economic boom and record low unemployment rates, Wise County has seen its unemployment rate rise to 17 percent. The largest single employer in Wise is a lumber manufacturer, which employs just 281 people. With 18.8 percent of its citizens in poverty, Wise has a poverty rate that is more than twice the statewide rate. The rate of high school completion in Wise is significantly lower than the statewide rate and most of the sites, as only about half of the population has graduated from high school. Most new employment is in low-paying service industry jobs fast food, discount retail, and nursing homes; secretarial and receptionist jobs also account for new employment. Two new prisons opened in recent years bringing some additional jobs to the area.