In the 1960s, much of the Appalachian region lagged behind the rest of the nation in income, educational attainment, access to health care, and efficient transportation. The Council of Appalachian Governors, an ad hoc group of nine governors of the Appalachian states of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, lobbied for external assistance for the mountainous portions of their states. Meeting with John F. Kennedy, a presidential candidate in 1960, the governors convinced him of Appalachia's needs. Campaigning in West Virginia, Kennedy encountered living conditions that further convinced him of the need for government intervention to solve the region's problems.
In 1963 Kennedy created the President's Appalachian Regional Commission to assist in advancing legislation to bring federal dollars to Appalachia. Harlan Mathews, later a U.S. senator, was Tennessee's first representative with the planning commission. Tennessee Sixth District Congressman Joe L. Evins supported the legislation through his role as a member of the House Public Works Committee, which he chaired from 1966 to 1975. When the legislation, the Appalachian Redevelopment Act, was passed in 1965, creating the Appalachian Regional Commission as a federal agency, Mathews was Tennessee's first designated representative.
Today the Appalachian Regional Commission consists of the governors of the thirteen states designated as Appalachian (the original nine, plus New York, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Ohio), each governor's designated state representative, and a federal cochair appointed by the president who serves with one of the governors as states' cochair. The states provide 50 percent of the funding to match the federal government's 50 percent funding. Program administration is conducted through local development districts, groups of counties designated by the state government for economic development. The Appalachian Regional Commission initially provided funding for the Appalachian Development Highway System; construction of health facilities, vocational educational facilities, and sewage treatment plants; timber development; mining area restoration; water resource planning; and land stabilization and conservation control.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s the Appalachian Regional Commission demonstrated improvements in the region's economic development and quality of life. In 1981, in response to the Reagan administration's efforts to eliminate the programs, the Appalachian governors prepared a resolution calling on the president to continue the commission; two of the states' cochairs, Governor Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Governor John Y. Brown Jr. of Kentucky, helped offset many commission budget cuts. The commission survived, though reduced in its ability to serve the needs of the region.
Attitudes toward the commission changed, first with the election of George Bush and continuing during the administration of Bill Clinton. A new strategic planning process, begun in 1994, reinvigorated the commission and culminated in the 1996 publication of Setting a Regional Agenda. The strategic plan called for developing a knowledgeable and skilled population, strengthening the region's physical infrastructure, building regional capacity in leadership and planning, creating a dynamic economic base, and fostering healthy people. The Appalachian Regional Commission continues to serve as a model of federal-state-local planning and partnership.