Since 1965, when it was first established by Congress, the focus of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) has been to foster the economic development of Appalachia. The mission of ARC is to be a strategic partner and advocate for sustainable community and economic development in Appalachia. The ARC is a planning, research, advocacy and funding organization; it does not have any governing powers within the region.
ARC undertakes projects that address the four goals identified by ARC in its strategic plan:
- Increase job opportunities and per capita income in Appalachia to reach parity with the nation.
- Strengthen the capacity of the people of Appalachia to compete in the global economy.
- Develop and improve Appalachia's infrastructure to make the region economically competitive.
- Build the Appalachian Development Highway System to reduce Appalachia's isolation.
To meet these goals, ARC helps fund such projects as education and workforce training programs, highway construction, water and sewer system construction, small business start-ups and expansions, and development of health care resources.
Each year Congress appropriates funds, which ARC allocates among its member states. The Appalachian governors submit to ARC their state spending plans for the year, which include lists of projects they recommend for funding. The spending plans are reviewed and approved at a meeting of all the governors and the federal co-chair.
The next step is approval of individual projects by the ARC federal co-chair. After the states submit project applications to ARC, each project is reviewed by ARC program analysts. The process is completed when the federal co-chair reviews a project and formally approves it.
Appalachia, as defined in the legislation from which the Appalachian Regional Commission derives its authority, is a 200,000-square-mile region that follows the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from southern New York to northern Mississippi. It includes all of West Virginia and parts of 12 other states: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.
About 23 million people live in the 410 counties of the Appalachian Region; 42 percent of the Region's population is rural, compared with 20 percent of the national population. The Region's economic fortunes were based in the past mostly on extraction of natural resources and manufacturing. The modern economy of the Region is gradually diversifying, with a heavier emphasis on services and widespread development of tourism, especially in more remote areas where there is no other viable industry. Coal remains an important resource, but it is not a major provider of jobs. Manufacturing is still an economic mainstay but is no longer concentrated in a few major industries.
Challenges to Reducing Economic Distress in Appalachia
Several national and international factors have substantially affected the Region's economic status in the past 10 years.
- The Region faces competition from imports in key industries, such as textiles and apparel manufacturing.
- In counties where manufacturing remains a dominant industry, declining real wages have eroded the income base. Moreover, high-wage, high-tech jobs have not developed in these manufacturing-dependent counties. The result is a widening income gap between these counties and the faster growing metropolitan counties where information services are concentrated.
- In many central Appalachian counties, the economic decline of the coal industry has contributed to their continued distress. Even with an anticipated rise in coal prices, the business and employment base of these counties is still expected to decline.
- Seventy-one distressed counties still have a high dependence on tobacco production. This poses another threat to the economy of the most vulnerable parts of the region.
Hope for a Brighter Economic Future?
The ARC and other study groups have identified the economic factors that have contributed and continue to contribute to West Virginia's economic conditions. Over the years, many programs and solutions designed to solve its problems have been attempted. Although the state's economy has faired better in recent years, many of West Virginia's economic problems have continued.
In future articles at The West Virginia Blog we'll examine reasons why the state's "jobs" issue remains as a challenge yet to be conquered.
Sources: Appalachian Regional Commission and Wikipedia's ARC article