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Gov. Lee announces fewest distressed counties in Tenn. since 2007

By Jill Penley
Freelance Writer

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced that Tennessee has the fewest distressed counties statewide since 2007, down from 15 in 2019 to 11 counties, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC).

“McNairy, Jackson, Fentress, and Morgan counties have shown tremendous improvement, and we are proud to support continued efforts for greater stability and prosperity,” said Gov. Lee. “As these counties improve beyond distressed status, this means more residents have access to quality jobs and economic security, and we are committed to efforts that sustain this progress.”

Johnson County Mayor Mike Taylor is encouraged to see the new governor addressing rural issues. “We are certainly glad Governor Lee has called for expanding broadband in rural communities to increase economic and educational opportunities,” said Mayor Taylor, “along with investing in high school vocational training and agricultural education and increasing access to healthcare in rural Tennessee.”

Johnson County was on the distressed county list as recent as 2016 when unemployment was 4.9 percent. While things have improved, the county is still considered “at-risk” of becoming economically distressed with a poverty rate of 23.50 percent. Carter and Unicoi Counties also remain in the “at-risk” category, which means being in the bottom 11 to 25 percent of most economically distressed counties in the nation.

Each year, ARC prepares an index of county economic status for every county in the United States. Economic status designations are identified through a composite measure of each county’s three-year average unemployment rate, per capita market income, and poverty rate. Based on these indicators, each county is then categorized as distressed, at-risk, transitional, competitive, or attainment. No Tennessee counties were added to the distressed list this year.

“We are focused on supporting rural Tennessee, especially our distressed counties as we strive for greater economic outcomes,” said Bob Rolfe, Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. “In 2013, Tennessee had 26 counties classified as distressed, and we are pleased to announce a drop to a 13-year low. This news reaffirms our long-term rural strategy, which is built around a full suite of community development grants and enhanced efforts to support job creation in our most economically vulnerable communities.”

Upon taking office, Lee’s first executive order required each of the state’s executive departments to provide recommendations for how they can better serve rural Tennessee, an assignment that was to be completed last summer. While those recommendations have yet to be released, the governor and his cabinet have visited Tennessee’s distressed counties, and many of those considered “at-risk” to assess the issues facing each.

“We have prosperity in Tennessee,” Lee said. “In a lot of areas, things are going quite well for us in the state, and we’re pleased about that, but we have 37 counties in our state that are in the lower 25 percent of joblessness and poverty in America. To me, that’s not good enough.”

Tennessee’s goal is to reduce the number of economically distressed counties to ten or under by 2025.
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