Between 2000 and 2013, the number of people living in high-poverty neighborhoods—where more than 40 percent of residents lived below the poverty line—nearly doubled. As of 2013, 13.8 million people lived in these impoverished neighborhoods, the highest figure ever recorded.
High-poverty neighborhoods are characterized by inferior housing, higher levels of pollution, underfunded schools, inadequate public infrastructure, and few employment opportunities—realities that carry significant consequences. A growing body of research shows that concentrated poverty undermines the long-term success of children and even lowers life expectancy. What’s more, despite the fact that most low-income people in the United States are white, people of color are much more likely to live in impoverished areas due to the enduring effects of segregation and ongoing discriminatory housing practices.
Historically, federal programs have prescribed a one-size-fits-all approach to address concentrated poverty, with a focus on housing. But it has become increasingly apparent that what’s needed is a more comprehensive approach—one that addresses the interrelated challenges faced by low-income people in high-poverty neighborhoods, alongside efforts to move some residents out of concentrated poverty. A Harvard study found that if a person moves to a low-poverty area as a child, he or she will be more likely to go to college and will see an increase in total lifetime earnings of roughly $302,000. While policies that enable low-income people to live in more prosperous communities, such as housing vouchers, are critical, leaders must address the challenges facing the many people who remain in underserved communities.
President Obama has taken note. When he took office in 2009, his administration set out to ensure that the federal government was supporting local innovation rather than dictating community development strategies, and established programs to help local leaders address modern realities such as changes in technology, aging infrastructure, and jobs moving to the suburbs and abroad. These efforts culminated in the announcement of the Promise Zones initiative in 2014, in which Obama declared, “A child’s course in life should be determined not by the zip code she’s born in, but by the strength of her work ethic and the scope of her dreams.”
Today, the Obama Administration announced the third and final round of Promise Zone designees, which include communities in Nashville, southern Los Angeles, Atlanta, Evansville, Indiana, San Diego, eastern Puerto Rico and southwest Florida. In addition, the Spokane Indian Reservation and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians also received the Promise Zone designation.
Designees will receive priority access to existing federal resources to help them implement their comprehensive plans to support job creation, increase economic security, expand educational opportunities, increase access to affordable housing, and improve public safety. In addition, new zones will receive AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers to help build capacity on the ground.
Over the course of just two years, the Promise Zone designation has proven to be an effective strategy for bringing local stakeholders together around shared goals, and for streamlining the relationship between local and federal leaders. For example, the designation has allowed the Los Angeles Promise Zone, one of the first cities selected, to leverage millions of dollars in grants across 14 agencies to support its work.
The Los Angeles Zone, which includes parts of Hollywood, is one of the densest and most diverse parts of the city, but is also one of the poorest. As a result of the initiative, the zone is utilizing federal support to transform its 45 different schools into “community schools”—providing full-time nonprofit staff to work with parents, coordinate resources, and provide workshops and wellness classes for students and parents alike. In addition, the school district is placing its own staff in job training centers, youth centers, and family centers to ensure coordination of resources throughout the zone. According to Dixon Slingerland, Executive Director of the Youth Policy Institute and a leader in the zone, “We believe anywhere a family goes in the zone should be a one stop shop. It shouldn’t be that we need to send them to all these different agencies. Wherever they go, we’re going to make sure we have all the pieces in place to support them.”
To be sure, in a world of limited resources, targeting funding to high-poverty communities means fewer resources will be directed to less disadvantaged communities that still face many of the same challenges. However, the goal of the initiative is not only to transform the selected zones—it’s also to change how the federal government works with local communities overall, while demonstrating effective and efficient strategies that other communities can adapt.
Such values should appeal to leaders across the political spectrum. After Eastern Kentucky was selected as a Promise Zone during the first round, Congressman Hal Rogers (R-KY) released a press release praising the initiative stating, “This program shows promise for recruiting private industry in several of our hard-hit counties.”
But with a new presidency on the horizon, the Promise Zones initiative could end with this administration. The progress that has been made in just two years through this initiative must be built upon to ensure such efficiency and effectiveness becomes business as usual for how the federal government works with local communities. To be sure, the Promise Zones initiative is not a substitute for a comprehensive plan to address poverty, which would require paid sick leave legislation, raising the minimum wage, protecting unemployment insurance, among other proven strategies. But when it comes to addressing the unique challenges of high poverty communities, the next president should take the lessons from the Obama administration and include this initiative in their governing agenda. Unprecedented levels of concentrated poverty require long-term strategies that cannot end in just a few months.