Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Rolling the boulder uphill in Appalachia

Appalachian Regional Commission's FY2019 County Economic
Status report shows continued challenges in Central Appalachia
Working to provide opportunity in Appalachia can feel like a Sisyphean task. Like the mythical Sisyphus, we at ACFCU – and others who strive to push back against challenges including poverty, economic shifts and geographic isolation – can easily feel like the boulder keeps rolling back downhill. Sometimes those challenges’ weight can seem crushing, especially when we see their direct effects on families who struggle just to achieve a decent quality of life.

ACFCU President and CEO Ron Scott
Our task is laborious and it can seem futile – but it isn’t. ACFCU’s President and CEO Ron Scott sounded an important note of hope this week in the wake of recent news from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). It’s a truth that applies not just to the credit union’s work but to that of non-profits, businesses, churches and schools that genuinely strive for this region’s flourishing. “We are making a difference,” Ron said in reference to an article about ARC’s updated “County Economic Status” report. “We are learning every day new ways to address the overall challenge of providing those of modest means with a pathway toward better living.” He went on to thank everyone affiliated with ACFCU “for your care and help in this important mission.”

ACFCU operates in some of the region's hardest-hit areas.
Such thanks can and should be extended to all who are working toward the same end, through whatever fair and just means are at their disposal. ARC’s annually updated report reveals much. ARC’s index-based county economic classification compares Appalachian counties with a national index of three indicators – three-year average unemployment rate, per capita market income and poverty rate. Counties in the lowest 10 percent nationally are deemed “distressed.” Those in the 11th to 25th percentile are deemed “at-risk,” while those in the middle 50 percent are “transitional.

With its many partners, ACFCU serves parts of the “reddest” area on ARC’s map. Out of 29 counties we serve, just a few are transitional, several are at-risk and the majority are distressed. As a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), ACFCU’s work and partnerships reach into numerous distressed counties in Kentucky. Even within our transitional counties we focus much attention on distressed census tracts as measured by ARC.
Even within less challenged counties, ACFCU focuses on
providing opportunity in distressed census tracts.

ACFCU’s fledgling “Aspire to Own” program is among numerous partnership-dependent efforts to bring opportunity to underserved areas such as Washington County, Tenn.’s Census Tract 609. Washington is a transitional county, but the 6,380 people living in tract 609 have a median family income ($23,083) just 34 percent of the national average and a poverty rate (45.6 percent) three times the national average.

The proverbial boulder in these efforts presses hard against our uphill climb. More than occasionally, though, a family’s life is transformed at least in part through ACFCU’s commitment. That can happen through home ownership. It can happen through financial coaching and the improvements that yields. It can happen through access to affordable transportation, free tax preparation or the provision of virtual financial services in remote areas where providers typically aren’t willing to invest.

Seeing “the stone rolled away” in peoples’ lives is a gift and a motivator to continue. Knowing such positive stories invariably involve collaboration is humbling. If you’ve walked through rugged Appalachian woods with the thin fall sunshine illuminating red, gold and orange leaves overhead and glinting off a rushing stream below, you probably have some idea of why Appalachia is worth our commitment. If you haven’t had that experience, make some plans – peak fall season is on its way, and we could use the tourism dollars!

(Jeff Keeling is vice president of communications and community relations for Appalachian Community Federal Credit Union.)

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