Keeping my promise to Appalachia

Published 4:12 pm Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Appalachian Ohio owes its rugged beauty to a rich terrain filled with mountains, forests, rivers and wildlife. As America prospered and grew into an economic super-power in the 20th century, the isolation offered by this landscape kept Appalachia’s citizens from sharing fully in the American dream. Attaining the jobs, transportation, health care and educational opportunities that other Americans take for granted have been hard-fought battles for the region.

In 1965, Congress established the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) to begin leveling the playing field for people living in the 13-state Appalachian region. With the help of programs managed in partnership with the region’s states, new direct financial support and development assistance began flowing into the region. Today, the Commission plays a key role in fostering economic development and improving the quality of life for the 23 million people who live and work in Appalachia.

Since my days as governor of Ohio I have been a strong supporter of the ARC. During my first term in the U.S. Senate, I authored the Appalachian Regional Development Act of 2002, which reauthorized the economic development efforts of the ARC, providing $446 million over five years. My bill also enacted a new Telecommunications and Technology Initiative to help improve the region’s telecommunication infrastructure and help businesses and residents take better advantage of e-commerce opportunities.

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Since the ARC’s inception, the region’s poverty rate has been cut in half (from 31 percent to 13 percent), the infant mortality rate has been reduced by two-thirds and the percentage of adults with a high school education has increased by over 70 percent. But even with all these tremendous advances, the ARC’s work is far from finished.

In recent years, the gap between the United States and the rest of the world has quickly closed. America is facing some of the fiercest competition I’ve seen in my lifetime. Maintaining our competitive edge in this global environment will take a reinvestment in our number one resource: our people. This is a priority the ARC shares.

That is why I am committed to passing my legislation to reauthorize the ARC, whose funding expires this year, at $510.9 million over five years as soon as possible. My reauthorization legislation creates the designation of economically “at risk” counties and provides an appropriate federal matching rate for ARC-funded projects in those counties. It also creates an Economic and Energy Development Initiative for the region.

The fact is, we must begin to produce highly-educated workers who have the skills and knowledge to address the challenges we face. We must also focus on developing the technology needed to become energy independent and less reliant on foreign sources of oil.

I recently completed my sixth annual tour of Appalachian Ohio, witnessing first-hand some of the tremendous successes in the region, and these pressing issues were at the top of my agenda.

I was very excited to host a health care workforce roundtable with regional health care professionals and community leaders in Marietta to discuss the development of health care industry training programs. These programs, including a $250,000 grant to Marietta Memorial Hospital in 2007 for the purchase of a linear accelerator for expanded cancer radiation therapy, were specifically ARC supported and have improved the quality of life in the region.

In Athens, I hosted a water infrastructure roundtable at Ohio University and discussed local water infrastructure needs with officials from throughout the region. In the last five years, the Commission has funded infrastructure projects creating or retaining 176,000 jobs and over 175,000 households have seen the benefits of clean water and sanitation facilities. Twenty percent of Appalachian households are still not reached by community water systems compared to 10 percent nationally. And 47 percent of Appalachian households are not served by public sewers compared to 24 percent nationally.

After witnessing all the wonderful strides being made in the region, I will keep my promise to continue to dedicate the time and energy necessary for the region to fully realize its economic potential. Achieving this goal cannot be done without serious commitment and support from the federal government.

I hope that my colleagues will join me in this pursuit to keep the region and our nation competitive in the 21st century global marketplace and pass the reauthorization of the ARC in timely fashion.