Mississippi reaffirmed its inter-governmental and private-sector relationships with the Appalachian Regional Commission last week with a visit from ARC federal Co-Chairman Earl Gohl, a Pennsylvanian who took the reins after unanimous Senate confirmation in the spring.
Gohl is an Obama administration appointee, but like all the long line of previous ARC federal chiefs he will play a thoroughly bipartisan role helping state-level Appalachian directors and divisions fulfill the program of work shaped by governors, regional planning and development districts, and, in a crucial link, the private sector whose dynamics connect with the assets and experience of the 45-year-old agency.
ARC’s adaptability, in fact, is the underpinning of its longevity. It hasn’t the money to fully fund major projects, but it has the right kind of money and grant-making process to kick-start and lay the foundation for much larger government and private investments.
Its adaptability includes changing its focus with the times.
Its mission includes the digital highway as well as the concrete highways interconnecting its 13-state region from southern New York to east central Mississippi.
Its political resilience is traceable to its origins when, it is widely, repeatedly told, the late and venerable Sen. John Stennis, a Mississippi Democrat who was at the same time a conservative and an enthusiastic appropriator, provided key assistance with the legendary, perhaps apocryphal statement, “I can stand on my porch in Kemper County and look out to see the foothills of the Appalachians.”
Kemper County is just north of Meridian.
Stennis’ eyesight may have been a geographic stretch, but it reflects the kind of political vision and pragmatism from which program enactment and longevity are made.
In context, Stennis and many other senators and representatives who shaped ARC were products and participants in a more collegial and collaborative era on Capitol Hill.
ARC fortunately has retained that pragmatism in its core approach to program and policy.
ARC’s usefulness and necessity can both be measured by what remains to be done within its core mission: Empowering the people of Appalachia to achieve the same level of prosperity as the nationwide average of counties outside its 420-county region.
In the beginning, some hard facts defined the necessity:
n One of every three Appalachians lived in poverty;
n Per capita income was 23 percent lower than the U.S. average;
n High unemployment and harsh living conditions had, in the 1950s, forced more than 2 million Appalachians to leave their homes and seek work in other regions.
Those facts of 1965 have been tempered but not leveled out:
n The poverty rate is between 13 percent and 14 percent;
n The per capita income average is above 80 percent in all ARC states except Mississippi, Kentucky and West Virginia, all three still in the high 70s – too little changed from 1965.
n Unemployment is high across Appalachia in this recession, but it is significantly higher than the national average in Mississippi, still the poorest state in the region.
Only 24 of Mississippi’s 82 counties are within ARC’s region, but the poverty and other negative demographics like education inadequacy exist statewide.
Something is happening in Appalachia’s most successful states, including Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina and Georgia, that’s not happening in our state.
Our Appalachian neighbors seem to be better at lifting themselves by their bootstraps and with ARC help. We suspect part of the problem is lack of long-term political will to do what’s necessary rather than what’s easy and expedient.
NEMS Daily Journal