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Appalachia just got bigger by 10 counties

CARLISLE — Tabbatha Tubbs laughs at the thought of Washington politicians decreeing her hometown Appalachian. After all, there's not a mountain in sight from this gently rolling countryside known for its Thoroughbred horse farms.

This is picturesque Bluegrass country: Black wooden fences surround grazing Thoroughbreds. Golden stalks of tobacco hang from tiered barns. And herds of fat beef cattle mow their way across fields of green grass.

It's hardly the heart of Appalachia, the rugged hills where President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty some 44 years ago. But Tubbs and her neighbors are now residents of the region, at least in the eyes of the federal government.

"It's funny, I think," Tubbs said last week, glimpsing the land from the window of her Carlisle beauty salon.

Folks in the heart of Appalachia aren't amused that President Bush, with the stroke of his pen, has redrawn Appalachia's geographic boundaries in a way that could take federal money away from some of the poorest communities in the United States.

Bush signed a measure Oct. 9 that gives 10 additional counties in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia access to about $87 million in federal money set aside this year for poor mountain communities to pay for economic improvements.

The decision added Nicholas, Robertson and Metcalfe counties in Kentucky to the boundaries of the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal agency that has been fighting poverty in the mountain region for more than 40 years.

Kentucky now has 54 ARC counties.

Dee Davis, head of the Kentucky-based advocacy group Center for Rural Strategies, said the ailing national economy has spread financial misery beyond Appalachia, and political leaders are looking for help from the ARC.

"Given the current state of affairs, they may want to stretch Appalachia all the way to Chicago," Davis said.

When Congress created the ARC in 1965, its territory stretched across 360 counties from Alabama to Pennsylvania. Its core was rugged, chronically poor Central Appalachia, where Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia converge. Political leaders in other states quickly recognized the benefits.

That same year, Sen. Robert Kennedy added 13 New York counties to the ARC's territory. In 1967, 20 mostly hilly counties in Mississippi were included.

The latest move to enlarge the boundaries of the ARC means it now includes 420 counties in 13 states from upstate New York to Mississippi. The region covers 200,000 square miles, big portions of which are not traditionally, geographically or culturally Appalachian.

Poverty indicators show the contrast between counties in the heart of Appalachia and the new additions, though that disparity existed even before the new counties were added.

For example, the federal government sent more than $12 million worth of food stamps in 2006 to Kentucky's Harlan County, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Nicholas County, where Carlisle is located, received just $1.1 million.

Annual jobless rates in Harlan County ranged from 13 percent in 1997 to 9.1 percent last year. In Nicholas County the range was 4.4 percent to 6.4 percent for the same periods.

The redrawn map upsets Karen Phillips, a teacher in a community where 75 percent of children qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches because their families are considered poor. Other areas of the country face economic hardships, Phillips conceded, but not like Central Appalachia does.

"The poverty here is so much worse than anywhere else," Phillips said. "You see that in the housing, in the age of cars people drive, in the clothing that kids wear to school."

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, defended the expansion, saying each of the additional 10 counties faces similar economic problems and that therefore they "meet the criteria" for receiving more financial support.

The Appalachia served by the ARC is political, not geographical, said Ron Eller, an Appalachian scholar and former director of the University of Kentucky's Appalachian Center.

Eller said President Johnson recognized that reality when he agreed to add portions of New York to get enough votes to push the Appalachian Regional Development Act through Congress in 1965. The geographical expansions have helped the ARC politically by increasing its clout in Washington.

Political considerations

The process of adding counties to the ARC area remains a political consideration. Congress adds counties; the agency doesn't decide which ones get in.

Edmonson County Judge-Executive N.E. Reed said that the last time Congress reauthorized the ARC, in 2002, Republican U.S. Rep. Ron Lewis got Edmonson County added. Congress also added neighboring Hart County then.

The two counties are much more typical of Western Kentucky farm country than of Eastern Kentucky coal country.

"Most people would not consider us Appalachia," Reed said.

However, the county's economic status qualifies it to be included, Reed said.

The legislation signed this month not only expands Appalachia's boundaries, it calls for $510 million to be spent in the region over the next five years to build roads and water lines, pay for education improvement projects, encourage economic development and even purchase computers for poor children. The proposed spending total is a $64 million increase over the last five-year allotment.

There would have been more money for core Appalachian counties, Eller said, if politicians hadn't spread it across a larger area. "When you continue to expand the counties, ultimately it creates a smaller pool of resources for use in the most severely distressed areas of the region," he said.

Herbie Smith, a Kentucky filmmaker who has documented the lives of Appalachian residents for more than 40 years, said the region has "some deep and serious problems" and federal funding needs to be targeted there. Smith said that splitting available federal funding with counties outside the mountain region harms Appalachian communities that have struggled through decades of poverty.

But officials in Kentucky's three new ARC counties said their communities need help, too. And some pointed out there are a lot of other counties in the ARC that are not traditionally thought of as Appalachian.

"We need it just as much as people that's actually in Eastern Kentucky," said Greg Wilson, judge-executive in Metcalfe County, which has been hit by job losses in the automotive industry.

As to whether the county is part of Appalachia, Wilson said, "I'm not going to say no."

Nicholas County Judge-Executive Larry Tincher said he has been lobbying for the past seven years to get the communities he represents declared part of Appalachia so that they can tap into the funding. He said job losses in Kentucky's textile industry have hit Carlisle hard over the past decade. The state has lost more than 7,000 jobs since 2001 in apparel manufacturing.

"We're not trying to take money away from anybody," Tincher said. "We're not in it to take anything away from anybody. We're just trying to improve the lifestyles of our families."

Tincher said Republican U.S. Rep. Geoff Davis, whose 4th District includes Nicholas County, worked to get the county into the ARC.

Not 'persistently distressed'

Eller doesn't dispute that the additional counties have economic problems that might even rival conditions in the heart of Appalachia. But, he said, the core Appalachian counties have had longstanding problems.

"Most of the severely distressed counties in Appalachia have been persistently distressed for more than a half-century if not longer," Eller said. "In many cases, the counties being added have gone through a more recent cycle of decline, and have not been persistently distressed in that way over time."

The ARC has pumped more than $11.7 billion into the region to build highways and expand the economy over the past 43 years. Dee Davis said people along the edges of Appalachia want to tap into those funds, even if it means embracing a region and culture that has carried a stigma in the past.

"When I was growing up, people were trying to run from the idea of being Appalachian," he said. "Appalachia's stock must be going up if people are wanting in."

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