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Jim Ross: Lawrence County economy stands out among Ohio neighbors

February 9, 2019

Who knew Lawrence County was an oasis of relative prosperity in southern and southeastern Ohio?

That’s what the Appalachian Regional Commission determined when its most recent list of counties’ economic status. On a five-step scale that ranked counties and labeled them as attainment, competitive, transitional, at-risk and distressed, Lawrence County found itself in the middle category. It and 204 other counties in the ARC’S 420-county region that stretches from Mississippi to New York state were labeled as transitional.

Two Ohio counties within a short drive of Huntington were placed in the distressed category - Adams and Meigs. Both counties are primarily agricultural and rely on manufacturing, utilities and government agencies in neighboring counties for jobs. Adams County took a hit last spring when its two coal-fired power plants shut down.

Most of the 81 distressed counties in ARC’s region are in areas that have traditionally relied on the coal industry. They include 15 counties in West Virginia and almost all of eastern Kentucky except for Boyd and Greenup counties. Those two fall in the “at-risk” category, the same as Gallia, Scioto and Jackson counties in Ohio.

According to a map posted on the ARC website, Lawrence County is the westernmost of a corridor of prosperity (relatively speaking) in this area. It includes Cabell, Putnam and Kanawha counties and turns north into Jackson, Wood and Pleasants County in West Virginia.

It says something for this area when Lawrence County’s three-year average unemployment rate of 6.3 percent, an 18.4 percent poverty rate and a per capita income that is 57 percent of the national average qualifies as prosperous, but that’s life in this part of the Ohio Valley.

Only two counties in Appalachian Ohio had numbers good enough to be designated competitive. Those were Clermont County, which is next to Cincinnati, and Holmes County in northeastern Ohio. People who live in the heart of the Appalachian mountains may wonder how those two counties could be considered Appalachian, but that’s how politicians drew the boundaries.

In West Virginia, only Jefferson County performed well enough to be considered competitive.

A few years ago, I took a wrong turn in driving from Point A to Point B in Meigs County. While on the back roads in the Racine area, I found an area of dairy farms and well-kept farmland. Likewise, last spring I had to cut across Adams County from north to south and found a rural area that made me want to stop and find a place to live, if only I could find a job that paid a good wage.

Beauty doesn’t pay the bills. Not in most of Appalachia, anyway.

It’s a bit surprising that Scioto County didn’t make the list of distressed counties. The numbers compiled by the ARC show Scioto County being close to Adams County in the major categories, but Scioto County’s numbers apparently didn’t cross the line from at-risk to distressed.

Scioto County’s unemployment rate was 47 percent higher than the national average. Its per capita market income was 51 percent of the national average and its poverty rate was 58 percent higher than the national average. For Adams County, those numbers were 50 percent, 47.5 percent and 62 percent. Again, Scioto came close to being put in the bottom category but just missed it.

Fracking and pipelines have been good for the economies of some counties in eastern Ohio, but those counties have suffered as coal mines and coal-fired power plants closed. What the future holds for Appalachian Ohio is hard to guess. It appears prosperity will have to come from within, as few big projects are rushing in to fill the void left by industrial, mining and energy shutdowns.

Jim Ross is opinion page editor of The Herald-Dispatch. His email is jross@herald-dispatch.com.

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