Study: Ohio’s Appalachia distressed but making gains

If Ohio’s Appalachian counties were their own state, Ohio University researchers say it would rank as the second most economically distressed state in the nation–just ahead of Mississippi.

“We used the same methodology that the Appalachian Regional Commission uses to analyze the economic distress of counties across Appalachia, but applied that model to the rest of Ohio’s counties for comparison,” explained Rick Hodges, executive in residence at the university and a former director at the Ohio Department of Health.

Though that’s a bleak outlook, determined by three years of poverty rates, per-capita market income and unemployment rates, Hodges said the study shows improvement in Ohio’s Appalachian counties between 2009 and 2019.

“We are improving and at a rate relative to the rest of the state, but we started so far behind,” he explained.

In both 2009 and 2019, based on federal ARC data and U.S. Census Bureau data, Ohio’s Appalachia consistently sees its counties in the most economic distress of the whole state.

In Washington, Morgan, Monroe and Noble counties, those economic statuses: distressed, at-risk, transitional, competitive and attainment, translate to eligibility for funding by the ORC.

In 2019, Washington is considered transitional with two distressed areas identified by census tracts in Marietta, Noble is considered transitional, Morgan is considered at-risk with two distressed areas and Monroe County is considered entirely distressed.

“If your county is labeled distressed it means you’re in the worst 10 percent of all of the Appalachian counties in the country,” explained Bret Allphin, development director with Buckeye Hills Regional Council. “If you’re in that percentile you’re eligible for up to 80 percent funding for a project capping at $250,000 of ARC funds.”

At-risk and transitional counties, which in 2019 include Morgan, Noble and Washington, are eligible for up to 50 percent funding under the tenets of economic distress with a cap of $250,000.

“All of the counties in our region are eligible for funding regardless of distress, it just affects how much in local matching funds you’re required to provide,” noted Allphin. “The last project which used distress as a basis for additional funding was a waterline extension in 2016 in Bristol, Morgan County.”

Both Allphin and Marietta Development Director Andy Coleman said the findings of the study should be used as a tool to both highlight the progress over time in the region, but also incentivize more significant investment.

“I hate to think where these counties would be without the ARC,” noted Allphin.

Coleman agreed, saying the city has also benefited from leveraging ARC funds with the governor’s Appalachian office funds for projects.

“That’s how we got the widening of Millcreek Road and prevented the potential loss of several hundred jobs from Thermo Fisher,” Coleman explained. “Back in 2013 they were having trouble with their trucks navigating the road but by widening that we kept the industry and jobs.”

Coleman listed other accomplishments from leveraging Appalachia-specific funding mechanisms including the O’Neill Center roof replacement and the Armory parking lot and lights.

“Yes, we are in a distressed area, but we’ve made great strides in recent years and if we can show that need is still present how many more places could benefit?” he said.

The motivation behind the study, explained Hodges, is to highlight both the successes thus far and inspire policymakers and funding sources to increase their investment in Appalachian Ohio.

“One risk we see is the lack of infrastructure which makes it hard to attract and grow business. Most of Appalachia does not have broadband which in a 21st-century job market is imperative,” he said. “We did this study to create a baseline to see the connection between distress, opportunity and disease so that we can map it out and begin to intervene with policymakers where problems are identified.”

By overlaying the current study of economics with data of drug addiction, diabetes, suicide and available services, he explained, those in Columbus and Washington D.C. will pay more attention.

“There are many social determinants of health, poverty is a big one that contributes to the life expectancy of an individual,” Hodges said. “You can see that in studies in both urban and rural communities–that’s what we’re trying to build up in our area.”

PDF: Economic Distress Report, January 2019