President Barack Obama on Thursday announced the first of five Promise Zones, part of a White House initiative to combat income inequality and spur economic mobility in areas of the country that have been slow to feel the effects of the economic recovery.
Five communities — San Antonio, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, southeastern Kentucky and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma — will receive comprehensive assistance from multiple federal agencies, with the goals of creating jobs, expanding educational opportunities, increasing access to affordable housing and improving public safety.
In announcing the first five zones, Obama referred to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s announcement of the War on Poverty 50 years ago, in which he spoke of blighted communities “on the outskirts of hope” where residents had scant opportunities to improve their lot.
Obama — who last month called income inequality “the defining challenge of our time” — acknowledged that wrenching changes in the economy have created similar conditions today and said the administration was willing to consider any and all policy proposals to address those problems.
“Everyone in this country who works hard should have a fair shot of success,” he said. “A child’s course should not be determined by the ZIP code she’s born in but by the strength of her work ethic and the scope of her dreams.”
Under the Promise Zone initiative, each city or region has a specialized plan to address issues specific to its population, with the federal government serving as a partner, expediting access to existing resources, extending grants and offering tax incentives to businesses that hire within the zone.
The program, unveiled at the president’s 2013 State of the Union address and modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone multipronged effort to rehabilitate devastated communities in New York City, ultimately hopes to reach 20 communities, both urban and rural.
“If you’re doing real stuff that’s making a difference, your country will help you remake your community, family by family, block by block,” Obama said.
The issue of income inequality and economic mobility is receiving greater attention from both parties ahead of the midterm elections in November. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., gave a speech Wednesday sounding similar themes, albeit with a different set of proposals that transfer federal poverty funds to states. Democrats, meanwhile, are coalescing around an effort to raise the federal minimum wage and to pass a three-month extension of long-term unemployment benefits.
“This might be a challenge that unites us all,” Obama said. “I am willing to work with anyone to lay out some concrete ideas to create jobs, help more middle-class families find security in today’s economy and offer new ladders of opportunity to climb into the middle class.”