Summoning his inner community organizer, President Obama said Thursday he intends to “mobilize the country” this year around a national mission of giving poor Americans a shot at economic success.
“This is going to be a year of action,” Mr. Obama said at the White House. “This is not just a job for government. This is a job for everybody.”
The president announced the selection of five new “promise zones” — distressed communities that will qualify for tax breaks and expedited grants to combat poverty. The administration chose Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Antonio, an eight-county region in southeastern Kentucky and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma for the additional help.
But the administration’s promise to cut through red tape for the communities is off to an uncertain start. Mr. Obama announced the initiative at his State of the Union address one year ago; it has taken an entire year for the government to receive applications from cities and to select the first five of what Mr. Obama said will be 20 “promise zones.”
The zones are to retain their designation for 10 years; administration officials haven’t said how much the program will cost. White House press secretary Jay Carney said the proposal is aimed at speeding grants that are already available, rather than coming up with new federal money. The administration also envisions creating partnerships with private enterprise to encourage investment in the zones.
Among those who attended the event at the White House was Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, who said the president’s “motives are in the right place.” But Mr. Paul said cutting taxes drastically would help such communities more than giving them grants.
“Government grants largely haven’t worked,” Mr. Paul said. “I’m not asking Houston to bail out Appalachia, I’m asking Appalachia to bail themselves out. What we’ve done in the past hasn’t really worked.”
Similar programs to revitalize ailing communities have been tried by presidents ranging from John F. Kennedy to George H.W. Bush to Bill Clinton over the past 50 years, with mixed results. Overall, government has spent more than $20 trillion on anti-poverty programs since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a “war on poverty” 50 years ago, but the poverty rate in America has declined only from about 17 percent in 1965 to 15 percent today.
Mr. Obama is trying to draw more attention to the growing gap between rich and poor this year and to make it an issue in the midterm elections by raising such proposals as an increase in the federal minimum wage. He said he will hammer home the theme during his State of the Union address on Jan. 28.
“I will mobilize the country around the national mission of making sure our economy offers every American who works hard a fair shot at success,” Mr. Obama said. “Obviously we’re coming off a rancorous political year, but I genuinely believe that this is not a partisan issue. This should be a challenge that unites us all.”
The president’s critics have often ridiculed his background as a “community organizer.” But Mr. Obama said he is trying to implement some of the same strategies that he learned while working with church groups on behalf of poor residents in Chicago.
“This is what drove me into politics,” Mr. Obama said. “I was hired by a group of churches to help organize a community that had been devastated when their local steel plants closed their doors. These churches came together, and then they started working with other nonprofits and local businesses. And the government local, state and federal participated. And we started getting some things done that gave people hope.”
In Philadelphia, the program will target a section of the city that has a poverty rate of about 26 percent. Mayor Michael Nutter said the initiative is based on the philosophy that opportunity “should not be dependent on what ZIP code you live in.”
Mr. Nutter said the goals include driving down poverty, high school dropout and crime rates.
Congress would need to approve the tax credits proposed for the promise zones. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said distressed communities would benefit more from a measure proposed by him and Mr. Paul to create “economic freedom zones” featuring less regulation and lower taxes.
“So if our Democrat colleagues are serious about their focus on economic distress — — if it’s more than just some poll-tested Obamacare distraction — — then I invite them to work with us on innovative new approaches like this,” Mr. McConnell said.