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Will President Obama Keep His Promise?

January 13, 2014

Nearly a year after putting forth the idea in his 2013 State of the Union address, last Thursday President Obama officially announced the Administration’s first five “Promise Zones.”

Obama-SOTU

In last year’s State of the Union, President Obama addressed the topic of economic mobility – or the ability to get ahead in life – with a resolve not previously heard in the run-up to his second term election.  He spoke of several measures that his Administration believes will “build new ladders of opportunity” to “a rising, thriving middle class” big enough to fit any individual willing to strive for it.

“There are communities in this country where no matter how hard you work, it is virtually impossible to get ahead,” Obama said. “Factory towns decimated from years of plants packing up. Inescapable pockets of poverty, urban and rural, where young adults are still fighting for their first job. “

President Obama was referring to communities in some of our country’s most prolific cities – cities that were symbols of the economic mobility that defined the American Dream in the 20th century, but have since witnessed that dream stagnated by lost jobs, economic segregation, disinvestment, and poor performing schools.

According to a recent study, 43 percent of Americans raised at the bottom of the income ladder remain stuck there as adults, and 70 percent never make it to the middle.  “It’s a trend,” said Patrick Sharkley, Professor of Sociology at NYU, “that makes us think that cities will become less of an engine for economic mobility if they keep trending toward a scenario where the rich live in separate communities from the poor.”

The recently announced Promise Zones initiative is a key component of Obama’s plan to reverse these trends. The initiative relies on partnerships with local community leaders and other stakeholders to address the challenges preventing people from climbing the ladder of economic prosperity.

This interagency effort involving the U.S.  Department of Education, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Agriculture aims to create jobs, increase economic security, expand educational opportunities, increase access to quality, affordable housing, and improve public safety.

Three of the first five Promise Zones selected are located in major US cities – San Antonio, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles – in addition to Southeastern Kentucky and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Each has put forward a plan on how they will partner with local business and community leaders to make investments that reward hard work and expand opportunity. In exchange, Promise Zones designees will receive resources from the federal government that will support their plans to achieve positive outcomes.

The Administration’s Promise Zones strategy is an important acknowledgement that the fight to restore the American Dream must ultimately be local in its orientation and development. After all, it’s our community leaders who have a very real and daily understanding of the inherently local dynamics of economic segregation and exclusion.

It’s this philosophy that underpins the mission of the National League of Cities and the work we do in communities, the work we do to support local leadership, and what we advocate for on Capitol Hill. We believe our country’s most intractable issues must be addressed by policies that are locally informed and driven, supported by a resourceful and resolute federal government, with a commitment to achieving real, tangible results.

This “promise” to our communities from the Obama Administration is a great sign of hope. America’s cities, as our country’s driver of growth and innovation, will be committed partners in ensuring that every person has the chance at achieving the American Dream.

To learn about NLC’s work to provide pathways out of poverty in America’s cities, visit our Institute for Youth, Education and Families webpages.

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