Obama’s Appalachian Commission Looks for Direction

There hasn't been much economic progress in Appalachia over the last decade. President Obama's choice to run the Appalachian Regional Commission is now searching for a way forward.

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From parks in New York to creameries in Ohio, all the way down to rock slides in North Carolina and repair projects in Alabama, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) is a federal agency engaged in an eclectic array of projects throughout the 13-state region it serves – and the agency’s newly appointed co-chair, Eric Gohl, will be overseeing them all.

Created in 1965 to combat the poverty and economic distress of Appalachian counties from New York to Mississippi, the commission allocates federal funding to projects that create jobs, increase global competitiveness, or develop regional infrastructure. It also manages the construction of the Appalachian Development Highway System (ADHS).

“There were very poor counties, underdeveloped, [that] really didn’t have the infrastructure necessary to participate in the American economy,” said Jesse White, co-chair of the ARC from 1994 to 2003. “Back then, the federal grant and aid programs required a local match, and many of these communities were too poor to come up with even that.”

One in three Appalachians lived in poverty at the time of the ARC’s founding, and the per capita income for the region was 23 percent lower than the nation as a whole. Of the 420 counties in the region, 223 were classified as economically distressed; today, that number is 82.

White cited a 1995 study and subsequent 2000 follow-up to attest to the agency’s effectiveness. The study found that, when compared to “twin counties” of similar economic conditions outside of Appalachia, counties within the region experienced greater economic growth and development. However, the ARC is not without its critics, and not everyone agrees the ARC is driving the progress seen in the region.

“Too much money was being put into roads and not enough into community development of smaller communities,” said Helen Lewis, a sociologist and educator who has written extensively about Appalachia and who was among the ARC’s early critics. “I think they could’ve done more to preserve community health centers, [and] they could’ve done more on some of the health problems.”

ARC
Every year, the ARC maps the economic situation in each Appalachian county. This is the most current map. Red and peach colored counties are distressed. Blue counties have reached national levels of economic well-being. If you look at the map below, you’ll see that the basic shape of poverty in Appalachia hasn’t changed much in the last decade.

“It’s a top-down approach,” said Steve Fisher, a longtime educator and activist in the region. “The problem with that approach is that it doesn’t work. You’ve had an improvement in the statistics in terms of poverty, but that’s a general thing that you see throughout the country. [The ARC] will claim to have taken credit for the economic development of the region, but it has not fundamentally changed the economic situation or the policy situation. It has always stayed away from issues that are at the core of what’s the matter in the region.”

Gohl, now in his fourth month on the job, maintains the ARC has a “record of accomplishment” that he hopes his governmental experience will enable him to build upon. His résumé includes a 20-year background in Pennsylvania’s state and local governments and federal-level experience at the U.S. Department of Labor. He is married to Anna Burger, secretary/treasurer of the Service Employees International Union.

He characterized his role as that of Appalachian advocate, responsible for listening to governors and local communities and monitoring emerging issues in the region. He sees bringing jobs to Appalachia as the major challenge facing the region today.

ARC
Here is the distressed county map from 2002. The agency has changed its categories somewhat, but you can see that there has been little change between this map and the current map above.

“From 2000 to 2007, Appalachia lost 424,000 manufacturing jobs and 35,000 jobs in mining, forestry, and natural resources. And that was before the start of the recession,” he said.  “We have our work cut out for us in helping to create new, well paying jobs to replace all the ones that have been lost.”

White, the former co-chair, said his main focus was moving the region to a homegrown business-entrepreneurial model, something he hopes will remain a priority. He says the ARC Entrepreneurial Initiative, implemented in 1997, created jobs and businesses in fields “from high-tech businesses in very unexpected places” to “canoeing and kayaking businesses.”

“There are still a lot of infrastructure challenges,” he said. “There are still places that don’t have clean drinking water or sanitary sewer systems, but I think the real key to turning the region around is education, training, [and] entrepreneurship. I hope the agency will keep a focus on that.”

After spending his first few months on the job “going out and visiting the states,” according to an ARC spokesperson, Gohl is now charged with creating a new strategic plan to guide funding from 2011 to 2016 and outline the agency’s priorities.

Steve Fisher, however, citing concerns about the agency’s structure and limited citizen input, doesn’t see a new strategic plan as a meaningful step forward.

“I just don’t see how it can be reformed,” he said.

 

 

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