Obama’s Initiative: One Promise, Different Zones

Promise Zones represent outreach to a cross-section of America.

President Barack Obama with representatives and community members from San Antonio, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, southeastern Kentucky and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Jan. 9, 2014, at the White House. President Obama announced the five areas as his administration's first five “Promise Zones.”

Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Barack Obama is a man on a mission.

As the second year of his second term commences, he embarks on a progressive agenda, mirroring the campaign of hope and change that originally inspired a new generation of voters in 2008.

Key to his platform is an unapologetic focus on income inequality, the long-term unemployed and communities plagued by generational cycles of poverty. Inspired, in part, by the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty, the president unveiled a new proposal last week that he calls “Promise Zones.” Aimed at assisting the working poor, the program targets a strategic blend of rural and urban communities, from the inner cities of Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Antonio to the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky and Native American tribal areas of Oklahoma.

These five communities have already put forth a plan on how they will partner with state business and local leaders to make investments that result in better outcomes for young students as well as adults seeking employment. In exchange, the communities will receive federal grants, other government assistance and tax incentives.

Key to the plan is that these initiatives would not require congressional action. The Promise Zones programs will be run by the administration and funded largely through discretionary spending sanctioned by existing programs or executive action.

The president has learned the hard lessons of Republican obstinacy: government shutdowns, debt-ceiling debates, stalled judicial and Cabinet appointments and an incessant obsession with dismantling Obamacare. Not only is this GOP committed to his personal failure, but, as Paul Krugman writes in the New York Times, modern-day Republicans have proved to be “enemies of the poor.

After two years of fruitlessly pushing the GOP-controlled House of Representatives to pass the American Jobs Act—a piece of legislation that would have aggressively addressed the unemployment crisis by adding 2 million jobs to the U.S. economy—the White House is finding new ways to deliver results.

However, this is only the beginning.

At first it struck me as odd that the first five communities—of a total of 20, yet to be announced—were not all major cities, like Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore and Newark, N.J., with sizable black and Hispanic populations. Why? According to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Detroit alone is suffering an 11 percent unemployment rate. Some studies suggest that the underemployment rate there brings the total number of unemployed to nearly 50 percent. And extensive reports of the city’s bankruptcy, abandoned homes, schools and hospitals have dominated the national debate on the decline of America’s once-great manufacturing powerhouses.

Likewise, between 2010 and 2013, the self-proclaimed “Renaissance City” Newark has seen its unemployment rate seesaw between 14.3 percent and 16.5 percent. Even Atlanta, long considered a bastion of African-American economic progress, struggles with an 8.9 unemployment rate—well above the national average.