The Appalachian Regional Commission listed Athens as a distressed county in its evaluation of Appalachian county economic statuses for fiscal year 2018. Athens was listed as at-risk instead of distressed for fiscal year 2017.
The ARC takes several different index factors, such as unemployment rates, per capita market income and poverty rates, and compares them to the national averages. The ARC’s 420 counties are then ranked against five categories: distressed, at-risk, transitional, competitive or attainment. Distressed counties are in the bottom 10 percent of counties nationally in those three index factors.
Attainment is the counties that are doing the best economically, and distressed is at the bottom of the group, Wendy Wasserman, communication and media relations director for the ARC, said.
“Distressed, for us, just means it’s in the quintile of the counties with the most economic challenges that year,” Wasserman said.
Athens County has a poverty rate of 33 percent, compared to a national poverty rate of 15.5 percent, according to ARC data.
Distressed counties qualify for the ARC’s Distressed Counties Program. The program has two parts that look to help those counties boost economic development. The program includes an effort to assist local communities with economic development. The ARC provides funding and outreach to distressed counties. It also has a telecommunication effort that looks to boost technological growth. Athens County, along with 83 other Appalachian counties, qualifies for distressed county status, according to the ARC website.
Athens County Commissioner Lenny Eliason said Athens County has received funding in previous years because it was listed as distressed.
“Athens County received a 60% grant 40% loan from USDA to fund the building of the Route 50 corridor sewer project because we are listed as a distressed county,” Eliason said in an email.
Wasserman said there are many ways to help Athens’ distressed economic status.
“Really strategic, thoughtful and well planned out economic development is always a good place to start,” Wasserman said in a previous Post report. “That can start at a very individual level at a business or an entrepreneur and work its way all the way up to federal funding.”
Eliason said several factors drive up the poverty rate in Athens.
“One of the factors that contributes to the distress designation is the inclusion of the student population into the census numbers,” Eliason said in an email. “Because they do not have large incomes, if any, they help drive up the poverty numbers. The relative isolation from interstate highways is a problem for most Appalachian counties which (hinders) job growth and income growth.”
The Athens County Economic Development Council has several strategies to try to further economic growth, Sara Marrs-Maxfield, executive director of the the council, said.
“Athens County’s high poverty rates and low incomes are driven by the lack of high wage private sector jobs,” Marrs-Maxfield said in an email. “Our local economy relies heavily on government and low wage retail, food service and accommodation jobs. In order to move the needle in the right direction, we need to focus our efforts on growing high wage private sector industries such as advanced manufacturing, professional services, healthcare, and biotechnology, to name a few.”
Although there are many strategies Athens County could take to leave the distressed category, Marrs-Maxfield said the best way to boost Athens’ economy is cooperation.
“No one entity can solve this issue, no matter how many programs they launch,” Marrs-Maxfield said in an email. “This is a systemic issue that bleeds across communities regardless of political boundaries. The way to ‘fix this’ is for non-profits like ours, government, and the private sector and others to work together towards the common goal of quality jobs and progress.”