Obama’s Initiative: One Promise, Different Zones

Edward Wyckoff Williams
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.

Worst of all, the unemployment rate for African Americans ages 16 to 19 was 393 percent higher than the national unemployment rate in November 2013, according to BLS data. As of October 2013, the unemployment rate for that demographic was 36 percent


It seemed to me, therefore, that black communities should be the focus of President Obama’s initiative. And perhaps the president anticipated that response.

In his speech last week he said, “President Johnson talked about communities ‘on the outskirts of hope where opportunity was hard to come by.’ Well, 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. 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.”


And he’s right.

A 2012 study by the Appalachian Regional Commission in Washington, D.C., found that in 25 of 36 Appalachian counties—home to a largely rural white American community—the unemployment rate was at least 10 percent. And unlike the African-American community, these poor whites were disproportionately undereducated—with more than one in five working-age adults lacking a high school diploma. But even outside rural communities, poor and working-class white Americans continue to make up the largest percentage of people dependent on social welfare programs, including food stamps and unemployment insurance.


But if underemployed African Americans and uneducated, poor whites are America’s forgotten, then struggling Native American communities are simply invisible.

According to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, tribal communities were experiencing unemployment rates of between 80 and 93 percent—and this was before the Great Recession and mortgage crisis of 2007 and 2008. And of those who were unemployed, upwards of 79 percent were living below the national poverty line in some communities.


It appears that the first African-American president is keenly aware of the historic struggles facing black communities, but also that his role as president of all the people requires more expansive solutions. 

From a political perspective, the Promise Zones initiative also places the issues of poverty and income inequality in the backyards of Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and 2016 presidential hopeful Rand Paul, both from Kentucky. Not only is their state being targeted as a Promise Zone, but its Democratic governor is experiencing lauded success implementing the Affordable Care Act—bringing health coverage to a largely poor and white demographic.


So as congressional Republicans waver on extending unemployment benefits and GOP governors block the Obamacare Medicaid expansion for low-income workers, the truth is that poverty—despite the stereotypes—is not simply an issue of black or white. 

Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

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