Jonathan Tamari, Inquirer Washington Bureau Published Wednesday, January 8, 2014, 2:01 AM
The White House has chosen the area as one of the nation’s first five “Promise Zones,” a program aimed at cutting unemployment, poverty, and crime, enhancing education, and attracting private-sector investment and jobs, all as part of President Obama’s efforts to help hard-hit communities and spread economic opportunity, according to administration officials.
The program, first pitched in Obama’s last State of the Union speech, is announcing its first five participants Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s call for a “war on poverty.” Obama plans to speak about the initiative Thursday as Democrats make income inequality their dominant theme of the new year.
“The president has said that the defining challenge of our time is making sure that our economy works for every working American, and that means doing more to make sure middle-class incomes grow, doing more to promote economic mobility,” said an administration official who requested anonymity to discuss the program ahead of its formal announcement.
A section of West Philadelphia that includes Mantua will be one of the first five zones, where federal agencies will coordinate with local officials to combat an array of ills.
“Promise Zones are a new way of doing business,” the administration official said. “They will be led by local community leadership working toward a common goal … supported by the federal government.”
Participants will get priority for federal grants and help applying from an array of agencies.
Obama is also hoping for $5 billion in tax incentives to encourage businesses to invest and hire in the zones, but that will require approval from a Congress that has blocked many of his priorities.
“There are communities in this country where no matter how hard you work, it is virtually impossible to get ahead,” Obama said when he outlined the plan in his State of the Union speech last February. “That’s why we need to build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class for all who are willing to climb them.”
The Philadelphia zone includes 35,315 residents in an area where the poverty rate is close to 51 percent and unemployment is at 13.6 percent, according to the city’s application.
“It is high on all the bad things, low on all the good things. That is almost a toxic mix in a concentrated area,” Mayor Nutter said Tuesday. He said the new effort offers “a multipronged, multifaceted, multiagency approach to try to attack all those things simultaneously.”
The program will be coordinated through the mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity and is to involve, among other entities, the Police Department, the School District, the Philadelphia Housing Authority, Drexel University, and several nonprofits, according to the city.
The idea is to get them all moving in the same direction.
“This coalesces the community around a very clear plan with very clear goals,” said Maari Porter, the city’s chief grants officer. Obama’s message, Nutter said, is, “we will give you points, we will enhance, we will help you leverage, if you work together and put a plan together.”
He talked up the opportunities that could spring from revitalizing Lancaster Avenue as a commercial corridor. Porter listed 11 goals in the zone, including fighting crime, expanding prekindergarten education, increasing home ownership, and attracting businesses and jobs.
Sen. Robert P. Casey (D., Pa.) said that being chosen for the program “has the potential to be a game-changer that will lift up what is already one of the country’s most dynamic cities.”
The other initial Promise Zones are communities in San Antonio, Texas; Los Angeles; southeastern Kentucky; and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. The administration plans to expand to 20 locations within the next three years.
Nineteen urban communities initially applied for the program, along with 12 applicants from rural and tribal areas.
BY THE NUMBERS
35,315 — Residents in Phila. Promise Zone.
51% — Poverty rate.
14% — Housing vacant.
13.6% — Unemployment.