Is Obama’s ‘Promise’ Empty?

Is Obama's ‘Promise’ Empty?
Obama during the launch of his Promise Zones initiative

AFRICANGLOBE – Despite the disproportionate impact of poverty found in African-American communities, only one of President Obama’s “Promise Zones,” is majority-Black, according to a new report by the Center for American Progress (CAP), a nonpartisan research and educational institute.

The report, titled “A Renewed Promise – How Promise Zones Can Help Reshape the Federal Place-Based Agenda,” offered recommendations on the role the federal government should play in breaking barriers to social and economic mobility.

Established Strategy

Policies targeting zip codes also are known as “place-based” policies. They date from at least 1933 when President Franklin Roosevelt created the Tennessee Valley Authority to offset the effect of the Great Depression on the southern US.

In 1963, President Kennedy originated what came to be known as the Appalachian Regional Commission. It was expanded by his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, then passed by Congress in 1965.

Republicans also have supported similar efforts in the past. President Reagan, while cutting safety-net programs, pushed for an enterprise zone program that would offer job-creating incentives to businesses in blighted urban neighborhoods; Congress refused to pass it. The program was later launched by the George H.W. Bush administration.

Targeting The Poorest

Obama launched his Promise Zones initiative in January, a program that will fast-track federal aid to some of the nation’s poorest communities. Promise Zones are designed to revitalize high-poverty communities through comprehensive, evidence-based strategies and help local leaders navigate federal funding.

The program would provide no direct funding to targeted zones. Its proposed tax credits would require approval from Congress. It is modeled on the Clinton administration’s EZ program, which distributed tax credits to economically distressed urban neighborhoods.

The following were selected as Promise Zones in the first round of the process – San Antonio, Texas; Philadelphia; Los Angeles; Southeastern Kentucky; and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

Philadelphia, which is about 43 percent Black and nearly 37 percent White, is the only majority-Black Promise Zone selected in the first round.

“In Philadelphia, nearly four out of every 10 kids live below the poverty line, with many living in the city’s struggling West Philadelphia area. In the area’s Mantua neighborhood specifically, only around 40 percent of adults have a high school diploma, and there are high youth crime rates,” states the CAP report.

Applications from New Orleans, Boston, Cincinnati, rural Louisiana, New Mexico, and two Native American tribes did not make the final cut.

Information on applying for the second round of Promise Zone designations is now online with announcements of successful applicants expected in early 2015. The administration plans to designate a total of 20 Promise Zones by 2016.

Serious Need

The CAP report does justify the need for increased federal aid in all five of the first Promise Zones.

“San Antonio’s Eastside neighborhood is a predominately Latino and African-American community, where nearly four in 10 adults do not have high school diplomas and the violent-crime rate is 50 percent higher than the rest of the city,” according to the report.

Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation, an economic development firm created during President Johnson’s administration, reported that the poverty rate in majority White Southeastern Kentucky is around 30 percent.

The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma also suffers poverty rates that are much higher than the national average.

“Although the poverty rate for those living in the Choctaw Nation is nearly 23 percent, some communities within the zone are far higher. Nine of the census tracts designated as part of the Choctaw zone have poverty rates exceeding 30 percent with one as high as 52.8 percent,” report said.

Racist Government Policies

The CAP report highlighted the implicit and explicit role that the federal government played in stifling the “American Dream’’ for thousands of Black families.

“These practices included redlining, beginning in the 1930s when the federal government allowed the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation and banks to exclude African-American communities from receiving home loans,” stated the report.

“Following World War II, in many metropolitan regions, highways were rammed through many low-income, mostly African-American communities, displacing thousands of residents and small businesses and ripping apart the fabric of these long-established neighborhoods.

“Today, concentrated poverty persists with many communities facing inferior housing, poor health outcomes, failing schools, inadequate public infrastructure, and few employment opportunities.

“A growing body of research shows that being raised in such high-poverty communities undermines the long-term life chances of children,” stated the CAP report. “For example, poverty has been shown to genetically age children, and living in communities exposed to violence impairs cognitive ability.”

The report said that this increases the likelihood that children will have poor health and educational outcomes and few employment opportunities in the future.

Middle-Class And Poor

Even Blacks who are considered middle-class, based on their income, often live in poor neighborhoods.

The CAP report cited research by Patrick Sharkey, an associate professor of sociology at New York University, that found  “the average African-American family making $100,000 a year lives in a more disadvantaged neighborhood than the average White family making $30,000 a year, revealing how past social policies continue to affect neighborhood choice.”

The report continued: “Sharkey explains that the same, mostly African-American families have lived in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods over long periods of time and over multiple generations, limiting access to better opportunities.

“Neighborhood poverty experienced a generation ago doesn’t disappear. It doesn’t become inconsequential. It lingers on to affect the next generation.”

The federal government has a role to play in undoing the effects of past policies that contributed to these outcomes, the report states.

Suggestions To Obama

The report offered a number of recommendations to accelerate the efforts of the Promise Zones initiative, including cutting taxes for businesses that invest in the zones, awarding planning grants to help designees build capacity for current programs, and encouraging community and regional partnerships with anchor institutions like colleges and universities.

The report also suggested using current social mobility research that looks at family structure, segregation, and social capital to help design goals targeted specifically to the needs of the communities where the plans will be implemented.

Do They Work?

James Quane, associate director of the Joblessness and Urban Poverty Research Program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and an adviser on the Promise Zone program, told reporters that “this should be given a try,” though it’s unclear if similar programs in previous administrations were successful.

A 1996 interim HUD report on the Clinton’s EZ program reported “mixed” results, but an independent assessment in 2006 found that the program had created approximately $1 billion in additional wage earnings in the target areas, as well as another $1 billion in property wealth.

Unemployment decreased by some 30,000 people; 50,000 EZ zone residents had been lifted above the poverty line.

The difference in the two assessments reflects a problem of collecting good information on the programs as well as from the sheer complexity in trying to evaluate them, according to the experts.

Analysts also have said that it’s difficult to tell whether a program’s benefits reach the poorest people, rather ending up in the bank accounts of the business owners who get the tax credits.


By: Freddie Allen