By JAMES E. CASTO
The State Journal
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The proposed budget President Donald Trump has sent Congress calls for a $54 billion boost in defense spending, to be paid for with cuts to a broad range of domestic programs and the outright elimination of some agencies. The Appalachian Regional Commission is one of the agencies on the president’s “hit list” to be eliminated.
Even if Congress balks at Trump’s proposal to shut down the ARC, the Republicans in Congress seem likely to demand a draconian cut in the agency’s budget. The agency was provided $146 million of funding for fiscal year 2016. That amount included $50 million for the Obama administration’s POWER, or Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization initiative. The program is aimed at areas affected by economic downturns linked to the coal industry — as experienced in West Virginia and other parts of Appalachia.
According to a fact sheet posted on the ARC website, from October of 2015 to January of this year, the agency has supported 55 projects in West Virginia, totaling nearly $24.1 million. The ARC funding, the website says, has been “matched by nearly $24.6 million and will attract nearly $27.9 million in leveraged private investments.” The fact sheet goes on to say the funding will create or retain nearly 1,750 jobs, while training and educating over 16,500 students and workers.
The ARC was established by Congress in 1965 with a goal of bringing Appalachia into the mainstream of the American economy. As defined by the commission, the 200,000-square-mile region includes 420 counties in 13 states. All of West Virginia is included, as well as parts of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
President Lyndon Johnson signed the Appalachian Regional Development Act on March 9, 1965, but its origin can be traced back to President John F. Kennedy. During Kennedy’s pivotal primary campaign for president in West Virginia in 1960, he saw firsthand the despair in Appalachia, where one of every three families lived in poverty. The states’ governors formed the Conference of Appalachian Governors in 1960, and Kennedy kept a campaign promise by inviting the group to meet with him and top federal officials in Washington. The President’s Appalachian Regional Commission, or PARC, was created, and led by Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr.
Following Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, PARC recommendations were delivered to President Johnson, who saw them quickly transformed into enabling legislation.
The ARC programs fall into two broad categories: The Appalachian Highway Development System, a highway network intended to break the regional isolation created by mountainous terrain and thereby link Appalachian communities to national and international markets; and an area development program to create a basis for sustained local economic growth.
Facing a battle for the ARC’s future, Earl Gohl, the agency’s current federal co-chair contends that the commission has made strides in Appalachia, but its work is unfinished. Gohl explained the number of counties with poverty rates well in excess of national levels has dropped to 84 from 291 since the 1960s and points out “we used to measure people’s education levels in Appalachia by the percentage of folks who graduated from the fifth grade.” Today, he said, the percentage of high school graduates is nearing the national rate.
“Poverty has been reduced within the region,” he said. But income levels for families in Appalachia still fall about 12 to 13 percent short compared to the rest of the country, according to Gohl. “We’re leaving some folks behind,” he added.
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