Promise Zones: White House Announces New Focus on America’s Poor

Promise Zones: White House Announces New Focus on America’s Poor

By Hazel Trice Edney

 

 

 

Announcement comesin the 50th year after Johnson’s War on Poverty and on the eve of the Kingbirthday holiday. – Reminiscent of President Johnson’s 1964 “War on Poverty” thatfollowed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s. “I Have a Dream” speech, PresidentBarack Obama has announced a new vision for girding up America’s poor. With students fromthe Harlem Children’s Zone standing in the background Jan. 9, Obama hasannounced a new program, Promise Zones, in which the White House will focus onpoverty in neighborhoods of at least 20 cities. The program, which comes in thefifth year of Obama’s presidency, also marks years since President Lyndon B.Johnson declared a “War on Poverty in America”. Johnson’s declaration came ayear after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which was led by Dr.King. “It’s now been 50years since President Johnson declared an unconditional War on Poverty inAmerica. And that groundbreaking effort created new avenues ofopportunity for generations of Americans. It strengthened our safety netfor working families and seniors, Americans with disabilities and the poor, sothat when we fall – and you never know what life brings you – we can bounceback faster. It made us a better country and a stronger country,” he toldthe audience in the East Room of the White House. “Today’s economic challengesare different. But they’ve still resulted in communities where in recentdecades wrenching economic change has made opportunity harder and harder tocome by. There are communities where for too many young people it feelslike their future only extends to the next street corner or the outskirts oftown, too many communities where no matter how hard you work, your destinyfeels like it’s already been determined for you before you took that firststep.” {{more}} He continued, “I’mnot just talking about pockets of poverty in our inner cities. That’s thestereotype. I’m talking about suburban neighborhoods that have beenhammered by the housing crisis. I’m talking about manufacturing townsthat still haven’t recovered after the local plant shut down and jobs driedup. There are islands of rural America where jobs are scarce. They werescarce even before the recession hit – so that young people feel like if theywant to actually succeed, they’ve got to leave town, they’ve got to leave theircommunities.” In a nutshell, thePromise Zones will bring together non-profit organizations, the government andschools in order to strengthen economic vitality, schools, and public safety –with a specific focus on children. The first five will be located in LosAngeles, San Antonio, Texas; Philadelphia; the state of Kentucky and the ChoctawNation of Oklahoma. First mentioned in the President’s State of the UnionAddress last year, the White House describes it as “a way to partner with localcommunities and businesses to create jobs, increase economic security, expandaccess to educational opportunities and quality, affordable housing and improvepublic safety.” As the U. S.Congress had so far failed to extend emergency unemployment benefits to morethan a million people across the nation, the President’s announcement wonstrong applause from hopeful Black leaders who grapple with issues of economicdeprivation every day.  “Necessary, longoverdue, and a step in the right, direction,” was the initial reaction of JohnHope Bryant, President/CEO of Operation HOPE, which works to strengthen thenation’s entrepreneurship and small businesses. “One of the things I think he’sdoing is creating a framework of safety and basic infrastructure support aroundthe kids’ education and aspirations. This is not one grand master plan becausethe neighborhoods will all need different strategies. But he is wrapping themaround an enabling environment.” Bryant isespecially happy that the President is using terms that directly refers to theimpoverished. For the past five years, Obama has been criticized by some foralmost only referring to the “middle class.” “It’s not in vogueto talk about poverty in America. But, that’s the conversation they need to behaving. Because if we don’t empower the poor and create a true ‘ladder ofopportunity’ – to borrow from the President’s phrase – from the working classand the working poor to the middle class, the whole bet’s off for America. Sohe’s beginning to talk about all the right things. He’s got to go deeper,harder, stronger, more consistent. I have hopes that he will do it.” President Obama’sannouncement also comes on the eve of the national Martin Luther King birthdayholiday, Monday, January 20. NAACP Washington Bureau Director Hilary Shelton iselated about the timely announcement of a program that he hopes will finallybring the help that Dr. King called for and that has been historicallyneeded.  “This is awonderful way to start this year,” Shelton said. “It’s exactly where it needsto be. Before the economic [crisis] hit, African-Americans were disproportionatelypoor and disproportionately underserved when the economic downturn hit. Thenumber of African-Americans that were in the middle class was cut by half. Andonly 44 percent of African-Americans owned their homes then. “So, this is atremendous move in the right direction. We have to find ways to find folk tomove them in to the middle class. The focus has always been on the folks livingon Main Street. We all want to live on Main Street. But, we havedisproportionately more of African-Americans living on back street that westill need to rise in that direction.” African-Americanleaders aren’t the only ones applauding the new program. The Promise Zone hasthe potential of establishing strange bedfellows. Senate republican leaderMitch McConnell and ultra conservative Sen. Rand Paul both attended the WhiteHouse announcement. This week, Paul was set to give the keynote speech at anannouncement of a similar program at the Heritage Foundation, theultra-conservative D. C.- based think tank. Heritage PresidentSen. Jim DeMint was to the announce “Economic Freedom Zones that would“reduce taxes and ease government regulation in distressed areas,” according toa release. The statementadded, “President Obama recently praised Sen. Paul for his bill currently movingthrough Congress to create “Economic Freedom Zones”. Obama alsoacknowledged Paul in the audience at the White House. “And I’ve beenvery happy to see that there are Republicans like Rand Paul, who’s here today,who are ready to engage in this debate,” the President said. “That’s a goodthing. We’ve got Democratic and Republican elected officials across thecountry who are ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work. And thisshould be a challenge that unites us all. I don’t care whether the ideas areDemocrat or Republican. I do care that they work.” Promising to givemore details in his State of the Union Address on Jan. 28, the Presidentconcluded that he is excited about this year. “This is going to be a year ofaction. That’s what the American people expect, and they’re ready andwilling to pitch in and help. This is not just a job for government; thisis a job for everybody.”