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Promise Zones: White House announces new focus on America’s poor

21st January 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Hazel Trice Edney
Contributing Writer

( — Reminiscent of Pesident Johnson’s 1964 “War on Poverty” that followed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s. “I Have a Dream” speech, Presi­dent Barack Obama has announced a new vision for girding up Amer­ica’s poor.

With students from the Harlem Children’s Zone standing in the background January 9, Obama has announced a new program, Promise Zones, in which the White House will focus on poverty in neighborhoods of at least 20 cities. The program, which comes in the fifth year of Obama’s presidency, also marks years since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a “War on Poverty in America”. Johnson’s declaration came a year after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which was led by Dr. King.

“It’s now been 50 years since President Johnson declared an unconditional War on Poverty in America. And that groundbreaking effort created new avenues of opportunity for generations of Americans. It strengthened our safety net for working families and seniors, Americans with disabilities and the poor, so that when we fall – and you never know what life brings you – we can bounce back faster. It made us a better country and a stronger country,” he told the audience in the East Room of the White House. “Today’s economic challenges are different. But they’ve still resulted in communities where in recent decades wrenching economic change has made opportunity harder and harder to come by. There are communities where for too many young people it feels like their future only extends to the next street corner or the outskirts of town, too many communities where no matter how hard you work, your destiny feels like it’s already been determined for you before you took that first step.”

He continued, “I’m not just talking about pockets of poverty in our inner cities. That’s the stereotype. I’m talking about suburban neighborhoods that have been hammered by the housing crisis. I’m talking about manufacturing towns that still haven’t recovered after the local plant shut down and jobs dried up. There are islands of rural America where jobs are scarce. They were scarce even before the recession hit – so that young people feel like if they want to actually succeed, they’ve got to leave town, they’ve got to leave their communities.”

In a nutshell, the Promise Zones will bring together non-profit organizations, the government and schools in order to strengthen economic vitality, schools, and public safety – with a specific focus on children. The first five will be located in Los Angeles, San Antonio, Texas; Philadelphia; the state of Kentucky and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. First mentioned in the President’s State of the Union Address last year, the White House describes it as “a way to partner with local communities and businesses to create jobs, increase economic security, expand access to educational opportunities and quality, affordable housing and improve public safety.”

As the U. S. Congress had so far failed to extend emergency unemployment benefits to more than a million people across the nation, the President’s announcement won strong applause from hopeful Black leaders who grapple with issues of economic deprivation every day.

“Necessary, long overdue, and a step in the right, direction,” was the initial reaction of John Hope Bryant, President/CEO of Opera­tion HOPE, which works to strengthen the nation’s entrepreneurship and small businesses. “One of the things I think he’s doing is creating a framework of safety and basic infrastructure support around the kids’ education and aspirations. This is not one grand master plan because the neighborhoods will all need different strategies. But he is wrapping them around an enabling environment.”

Bryant is especially happy that the President is using terms that directly refers to the impoverished. For the past five years, Obama has been criticized by some for almost only referring to the “middle class.”

“It’s not in vogue to talk about poverty in America. But, that’s the conversation they need to be having. Because if we don’t empower the poor and create a true ‘ladder of opportunity’ — to borrow from the President’s phrase – from the working class and the working poor to the middle class, the whole bet’s off for America. So he’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’s announcement also comes on the eve of the national Martin Luther King birthday holiday, Monday, January 20. NAACP Washington Bureau Direc­tor Hilary Shelton is elated about the timely announcement of a progam that he hopes will finally bring the help that Dr. King called for and that has been historically needed.

“This is a wonderful way to start this year,” Shelton said. “It’s exactly where it needs to be. Before the economic [crisis] hit, African Americans were disproportionately poor and disproportionately underserved when the economic downturn hit. The number of African Americans that were in the middle class was cut by half. And only 44 percent of African Americans owned their homes then.

“So, this is a tremendous move in the right direction. We have to find ways to find folk to move them in to the middle class. The focus has always been on the folks living on Main Street. We all want to live on Main Street. But, we have disproportionately more of African-Ame-ricans living on back street that we still need to rise in that direction.”

African-American leaders aren’t the only ones applauding the new program. The Promise Zone has the potential of establishing strange bedfellows. Senate republican leader Mitch McConnell and ultra conservative Sen. Rand Paul both attended the White House announcement. Last week, Paul was set to give the keynote speech at an announcement of a similar program at the Heritage Foundation, the ultra-conservative D. C.- based think tank.

Heritage President Sen. Jim DeMint was to the announce “Economic Freedom Zones that would “reduce taxes and ease government regulation in distressed areas,” according to a release.

The statement added, “President Obama recently praised Sen. Paul for his bill currently moving through Congress to create “Economic Freedom Zones”.

Obama also acknowledged Paul in the audience at the White House.

“And I’ve been very 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 good thing. We’ve got Democratic and Republican elected officials across the country who are ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work. And this should be a challenge that unites us all. I don’t care whether the ideas are Democrat or Republican. I do care that they work.”

Promising to give more details in his State of the Union Address on Jan. 28, the President concluded that he is excited about this year. “This is going to be a year of action. That’s what the American people expect, and they’re ready and willing to pitch in and help. This is not just a job for government; this is a job for everybody.”

This article originally published in the January 20, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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