The blog of the Urban Institute
January 10, 2014

Promise Zones: Revitalizing communities and reducing poverty

January 10, 2014

Yesterday, on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, I was at the White House when President Obama announced the first five Promise Zones. With a backdrop of children and teachers from the Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academies, the president talked about “changing the odds for kids no matter where they are born.”

Promise Zones draw heavily from a policy approach that I helped to design called Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2). They are partnerships between the federal government and local communities that are bottom-up rather than top-down, stress accountability, and unleash the creativity of federal officials.

The communities that were selected as Promise Zones yesterday will benefit from increased “oxygen” and attention from up to 10 federal agencies, including the Corporation for National and Community Service; the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Labor, and the Treasury; and the Small Business Administration. This burst of “oxygen” will help neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and San Antonio and rural communities in Eastern Kentucky and Indian Country in Oklahoma move their agendas and plans forward to improve schools, safety, and the availability of affordable housing.

As part of the package, the Obama Administration has also proposed cutting taxes on hiring and investment in areas designated as Promise Zones – based on the Empowerment Zone tax credits – to attract business and create jobs.

With no new big grants forthcoming yet, but the promise to help access federal resources, some might ask:  what’s the big deal? Of course, we need more resources to address poverty in the United States, and there are a number of proposals on the table that would increase resources for pre-K and other evidence-based interventions. But I have seen firsthand that more money is not the entire solution.  Creating better alignment between systems of education, housing, and safety is an essential ingredient to moving the dial on poverty. This requires hard work on the part of local, state, and federal actors, along with nonprofit and business partners willing to commit to shared goals, metrics, and vision. It means busting through agency silos, reducing regulatory burden, and identifying unconventional approaches.

The Strong Cities, Strong Communities Community Solutions Teams are good examples of how this works at the local level. These teams act as “sherpas” for cities that have faced tough times, helping mayors and their senior staff navigate the somewhat impenetrable federal system. These teams don’t give SC2 cities a leg up in grant competitions, but they do help cities utilize existing federal resources and tools to greater effect.

One of my favorite examples of this creativity comes from Fresno, CA. To support Mayor Swearingen’s plan to revitalize downtown Fresno, the General Services Administration (GSA) used one of the tools in its toolbox to negotiate two federal leases that relocated offices to downtown. Now, an influx of 4,300 new patrons a month will make small businesses more viable.

This major improvement in the downtown economy didn’t require new federal resources, but rather some smart thinking and ingenuity on the part of federal officials at the GSA and a partnership between federal and local governments.

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson moved an ambitious agenda through Congress and declared a “War on Poverty.” He also committed to evaluating the programs to see what worked, needed improvement, and missed the mark. The Urban Institute was born out of this commitment.

Yesterday, President Obama stressed that the Promise Zones are built on evidence-based practices. I perked up when he went on to say, “I care that ideas are subject to evaluation about what works.” Although the War on Poverty made incredible strides, poverty is still a very real condition in the United States. But if we keep on testing new ideas and invest resources, Urban Institute research has demonstrated we can make a difference. 


Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP


As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.


These Promise Zones are great, Mr. President, but 5 zones per year? Where is the scale? Where is the urgency? Too many of our kids are left behind to grow up poor in poor neighborhoods, suffering harm to their cognitive development and health, with the odds stacked against them. Let's be honest with ourselves --- at this rate, the benefits of Promise Zones will never reach them. As you said in your speech, Mr. President, you were like these kids except you grew up in a more "forgiving environment" where "[i]f I screwed up, the consequences weren't quite as great." If we are serious about changing the odds for these kids we all need to stop pretending that help is coming, and give their families the opportunity and choice to live in a more "forgiving environment." Right now, before another generation of kids is damaged. And then lets all move beyond these token revitalization efforts and roll out Promise Zones on a large scale, with at lease some resources to support them. If we think the Promise Zones approach really has promise, then let's extend it to five distressed neighborhoods in each large city each year --- not five neighborhoods in the entire United States.
Great piece and great work. Let's bring this thought process to the south suburbs of Cook County, IL. Go LGC 2006!
Great piece. Let's remember that CBOs are often the "glue" that can pull these various efforts together. Investing in nonprofit capacity is a critical component of creating success.
What you are doing is remarkable and I hope this will be a Republican/Democratic read country success.
I quite like reading an article that will make men and women think. Also, many thanks for permitting me to comment!