In honor of the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson declaring a war on Poverty during his 1964 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama introduced his own initiative to tackle the problem, called Promise Zones in an event in the White House East Room on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014. President Obama introduced the first five of 20 zones that will benefit from the initiative at the event; the areas that were chosen consist of San Antonio, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, southeastern Kentucky "coal country", and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. The President was joined by two usual Republican opponents; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY., and Tea Party conservative Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY; their home state was designated one of the zones.
The Promise Zone Initiative was first introduced in the President's 2013 State of the Union Address when he promised; "And this year, my administration will begin to partner with 20 of the hardest hit towns in America to get these communities back on their feet. Now, we'll work with local leaders to target resources at public safety and education and housing. We'll give new tax credits to businesses that hire and invest." In introducing this new program, President Obama has met his own deadline to launch the program prior delivering his next State of the Union Address.
The broader issue of economic inequality is one that Obama intends to visit and expand on during his 2014 State of the Union Address on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014. In the next three years of his Presidency, Obama will introduce 15 more zones that will benefit from this economic program that aims to help all areas of the economy in those zones from job creation to improving housing and education. The program encompasses the "Departments of Education, Housing and Urban Development, Commerce, Health and Human Services, Justice, and Agriculture." The three zones chosen were a mix of urban, rural, and tribal areas that were "hard-hit by the recession" and experienced difficulty with economic mobility.
The program will give "tax incentives" to these chosen communities to encourage businesses, and government sponsored grants. President Obama is urging Congress to pass the tax breaks for the program. Areas and cities vied to be chosen by submitting a proposal the main qualifications to be considered included have a 20 percent poverty rate and a population of 6,000 to 200,000. The White House has described the initiative a cooperation between the community and business and as a "plan to create a better bargain for the middle-class by partnering with local communities and businesses to create jobs, increase economic security, expand educational opportunities, increase access to quality, affordable housing and improve public safety."
In introducing the initiative President Obama proclaimed; "We've got to make sure this recovery, which is real, leaves nobody behind, and that's going to be my focus throughout the year. This is going to be a year of action." The President was joined in his introduction not only by Republican Sens. McConnell and Paul, but representatives from the chosen communities and from Harlem's Children Zone, which Obama declares as a "model" program.
Acknowledging the bipartisan support present for the program's unveiling, Obama expressed; "We've got, you know, Democratic and Republican elected officials across the country who are ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work. This should be a challenge that unites us all. Talk is cheap. We've got to actually make sure that we do it."
The President described the initiative as a partnership; "We will help them succeed, not with a handout, but as partners. A child's destiny should be determined not by her ZIP code but by the strength of her work ethic and the scope of her dreams." President Obama explained how the program functions; "Each of these communities is design from the bottom up -- not top down -- what it is what they think they need to succeed."
Obama however, emphasized that the program was a not "handout" even with government involvement; "Don't be confused here, it has an important role to play. But it's important that our faith institutions and our businesses, and the parents and communities themselves, are involved in thinking how do we move forward."
While Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan explained; "Yes, these promise zones will work without the tax credits, but no, they won't work to full capacity. We believe the tax credits are a critical part in accelerating job creation in these communities. We can improve the housing, we can make sure the educational opportunities are there. But if there isn't a job available at the end of that path, it's going to be a heck of a lot harder for the kids (in these communities) to get ahead."
Republican Sens. McConnell and Paul who were in attendance are sponsoring legislation to create "Economic Freedom Zones," which McConnell describes as "something we could build on with far more comprehensive approaches." The Economic Freedom Zones Act will give tax breaks to even more areas than the Promise Zones in order to create jobs.
President Obama formally launched the initiative a day after the 50th anniversary of President Johnson declaring a War on Poverty in his 1964 State of the Union Address where he expressed; "This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort…. It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it."
President Johnson waged that war with the Great Society the largest social program since Franklin D. Roosevelt's the New Deal, which aimed at creating "better schools, and better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities to help more Americans." The main point was that government has the "responsibility" to give Americans an "opportunity" to succeed, to build better lives.
In a statement honoring that 50th anniversary released on Wednesday, Jan. 8 President Obama declared that although there have been improvements the war on poverty is not over yet. Echoing Johnson's words 50 years before, Obama expressed; "But as every American knows, our work is far from over. In the richest nation on Earth, far too many children are still born into poverty, far too few have a fair shot to escape it, and Americans of all races and backgrounds experience wages and incomes that aren't rising, making it harder to share in the opportunities a growing economy provides."
President Obama rededicated himself and his administration to continue fighting the War on Poverty 21st century style, stating; "That does not mean, as some suggest, abandoning the War on Poverty. In fact, if we hadn't declared 'unconditional war on poverty in America,' millions more Americans would be living in poverty today. Instead, it means we must redouble our efforts to make sure our economy works for every working American. It means helping our businesses create new jobs with stronger wages and benefits, expanding access to education and health care, rebuilding those communities on the outskirts of hope, and constructing new ladders of opportunity for our people to climb."
Part of that rededication is President Obama's fight against economic equality, and the introduction of the Promise Zones Initiative. Launching his fight against economic inequality; Obama delivered an economic themed 50-minute major speech he delivered on economic inequality on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2014 "hosted by the Center for American Progress at Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus" in Southeast Washington, DC. The President stated economic inequality is the "defining challenge of our time," and "a fundamental threat to the American Dream."
This speech was a follow up to his Dec. 2011 major address on the economy delivered in Osawatomie, Kansas. A White House aide divulged that the speech includes themes and elements that will be present in the President Obama's upcoming State of the Union address in January. The President took on a different angle to the economy and to the middle class and jobs challenges Americans face, by focusing on the growing problem of economic inequality, and lack of mobility in the United States.
Concluding his statement on War of Poverty's 50th anniversary, President Obama renewed President Johnson's promise; "We are a country that keeps the promises we've made. And in a 21st century economy, we will make sure that as America grows stronger, this recovery leaves no one behind. Because for all that has changed in the 50 years since President Johnson dedicated us to this economic and moral mission, one constant of our character has not: we are one nation and one people, and we rise or fall together."
- Fact Sheet: President Obama's Promise Zones Initiative, Jan. 8, 2014
- President Barack Obama's 2013 State of the Union Address, Feb. 12, 2013