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

President Barack Obama announces a new vision for girding up America’s poor. MARK MAHONEY/TRICE EDNEY NEWS WIRE PHOTO

President Barack Obama announces a new vision for girding up America’s poor. MARK MAHONEY/TRICE EDNEY NEWS WIRE PHOTO

By Hazel Trice Edney
Trice Edney Newswire

As the U. S. Congress had so far failed to extend emergency unemployment benefits to more than a million people across the nation, President Barack Obama announced a new vision for girding up America’s poor.

“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 Jan. 9.

“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 young people feel like if they want to actually succeed, they’ve got to leave town, they’ve got to leave their communities.”

With students from the Harlem Children’s Zone standing in the background, Obama announced the new program, Promise Zones, in which the White House will focus on poverty in neighborhoods of at least 20 cities. In this announcement, he named the first five. They are located in Los Angeles, San Antonio, Texas; Philadelphia; the state of Kentucky and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

In a nutshell, the program 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 President’s announcement won strong applause from hopeful Black leaders who grapple with such issues 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 the President is using terms that directly refer 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,” said Bryant. “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.” NAACP Washington Bureau Director Hilary Shelton, is also elated.

“This is a wonderful way to start this year,” Shelton said. “It’s exactly where it needs to be. Before the economic (crisis), African Americans were disproportionately poor and disproportionately underserved when the economic downturn hit. The number of African Americans 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 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 Americans living on back street that we still need to raise in that direction.”

Promising more details in his State of the Union Address, the President concluded he is excited about 2014. “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.”


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