Jessica Lilly Published

What We've Learned About Fighting Poverty: Appalachian Regional Commission Looks Back on 50 Years


The Appalachian Regional Commission was created as part of the War on Poverty, declared by Lyndon B. Johnson in Appalachia in 1964.

Earlier this week Senator Shelley Moore Capito, along with other federal representatives, introduced legislation that would reauthorize the Appalachian Regional Commission. The announcement comes on the heels of a report evaluating the progress of the Commission after 50 years. 

We recently spoke with co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, Earl Gohl to talk more about the success, and challenges of the past 50 years and the work that’s left to do.

Gohl says while some things have changed, some parts of the region continue to deal with the same issues. Listen to hear part of this conversation.


Credit @earlgohl / Twiter
Federal Co-Chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission Earl Gohl

  My Appalachia is different from other people’s Appalachia. Why did some communities do well while other communities did not?

“It doesn’t really matter where you are whether it’s Appalachia or if it’s some place else in the world, economies that are reliant on single industry, rise and fall with the single industry. Communities that are able to diversify and to really broaden their economic base and their employment base those are the communities who do pretty well. And part of the challenge within Appalachia is being able to break through that and to really broaden and expand what the economy does and who all it employs and the types of  skills it warrants and helps push the level of education up a little bit further than what they otherwise would be. That’s the challenge. I think that if you look at communities who have broken out and have expanded their base of economics those are the communities who have done better than other places. I think that is really the fundamental difference that we can find often times.”

And when you say it’s dependent on one industry, is I think in Appalachia are you referring to one energy industry and being dependent on coal?

“Right now it’s coal but there’s a whole history in Appalachia. I mean at one time it was salt another time it was lumber. Extraction poses challenges to communities. It’s an incredible resource. It’s going to be an important part of Appalachia for a very long time, there’s no question about that. And the challenge that we have is and we you know the ARC does not engage with the coal industry we don’t regulate anybody we don’t take positions on a variety of issues. Our job is to work with communities and strengthen their economies. So our focus and our mission is a workforce that’s educated, capitol that’s invested and opportunities that are taken advantage of.”

Since the Appalachian Regional Commission has made such good progress like we’ve talked about before over the past 50 years, do you fear that Congress might eliminate funding for the ARC?

“Well first of all the progress that’s been made has been made by folks who live in Appalachia. We’ve had the really the honor and the privilege of working with them and supporting them but the strength of the economy the work that’s been done is work that they’ve done and that they’ve accomplished. We’re really happy to be here on the sidelines helping to foot the bill but it’s their successes. And I’ll also say that the commission is really seen by the folks who live in Appalachia as theirs. And my sense is that as long as the commission is responsive to the challenges of the region and as long as folks who believe the commission is theirs and they keep this conversation going that that issue will take of itself. But this really is something that when you go into Appalachian communities you learn very quickly whose commission it is. It’s not ours in Washington it is folks who live in communities throughout those states.”

Special thanks to the LBJ Presidential Library for providing audio clips for this story.