John F. Kennedy’s 1960 Presidential primary victory in West Virginia opened the door to a new era of political and media attention to the reality of persistent poverty in Appalachia. In an era of affluence and growth for the country as a whole, our region stood out for the presence of hunger, inadequate housing and few job opportunities. The attention led to the formation of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), and President Lyndon Johnson made a historic visit to Martin County, Kentucky in 1964 to raise awareness about the need for his War on Poverty.
The founders of the ARC sought to bring Appalachia into the economic mainstream through increasing the region’s resources for development. They saw Appalachia as too isolated from the growing American economy and prescribed investment in infrastructure, particularly roads, as well as in educational and other projects that would help the region grow as the rest of the country had.
Since the 1960s, Appalachia as a whole has seen improvement in a variety of measures of well-being including poverty, per capita income and educational attainment. The region has gained considerable new physical infrastructure through ARC and other investment— highways and roads, water and sewer systems, vocational schools, health care centers, industrial parks and other facilities. The same shopping centers and chain restaurants found in the rest of America can be found in the region. Some places in Appalachia—especially cities and county seat towns that were the focus of infrastructure and other investment—have experienced considerable growth and transformation.