For much of its history, Appalachia has lagged the rest of the nation in measures of economic prosperity, health, education and infrastructure development.
This is especially true of West Virginia. While the region is rich in natural resources, such as coal, timber, oil and gas, most of the wealth created from these resources by local workers has left the region. As a result, much of West Virginia and Appalachia have undergone a process of growth without development that has resulted in large pockets of poverty, a less-diverse economy and a lack of investments in public goods.
Now, Congress has an opportunity to invest in the region through the Appalachian Regional Commission, improving life for families, our children and future generations.
The ARC was formed in 1965, to make substantial investments in Appalachia, reduce dependency on natural-resource extraction and enable greater prosperity for all. At the height of its funding between 1965 and 1980, the ARC had a reputation as a “can-do-agency” that improved roads, hospitals, vocational schools and created jobs. At its peak, ARC investments created 100,000 jobs over five years in the 1970s.
Its progress was curtailed when President Ronald Reagan attempted to cut all ARC funding.
Federal support for the ARC has fallen away in recent decades and the timing could not have been worse. It happened while Appalachia was seeing steep reductions in high-wage extractive industries, and much of Appalachia has faced significant reductions in manufacturing employment.
In West Virginia, the result has been a decline in real hourly wages for the typical worker over the past 40 years, along with a long-term decline in employment. Many men have been dropping out of the labor force all together; they’ve just given up on even looking for jobs.
But that could change in the coming years.
President Joe Biden’s 2022 budget proposal includes an additional $55 million for the Appalachian Regional Commission on top of last year’s investment. On top of this request, Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., and Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., introduced bipartisan legislation that would provide an additional $1 billion in funding for the ARC’s Partnership for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) initiative over the next five years.
The program, which provides federal resources to help communities affected by job losses in the coal industry, created 4,325 jobs and helped create 932 businesses for Appalachia in 2020 alone. Coalfield Development is one such job-creator supported by the Revitalization Program, helping us to grow employment in solar installation, sustainable agriculture, construction and light manufacturing. Scaling up the program will scale up grassroots innovation across our region.
This is the kind of bottom-up innovation required to build a new, diversified and fairer economy.
This is a golden opportunity to increase ARC investments to grow jobs, diversify the region’s economy and improve social and economic outcomes. This investment also can help provide a stronger foundation for economic development over the long-term. This is especially needed in places hit hard by the loss of coal jobs and the opioid epidemic, and to leverage additional private funds.
Raising ARC funding can breathe new life into Appalachia. It can unlock a future that everyone wants — where new small businesses are opening in once-derelict downtowns, communities are recovering from the ravages of the opioid crisis that has plagued the region for a decade and children who are now in Appalachia’s schools are graduating with meaningful opportunities to find good jobs nearby.
In other words, it would deliver on the underlying mission that led Congress to create the ARC 60 years ago.