Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Impoverished rural areas in KY, OK designated "promise zones" to get federal attention, resources

NPR reported today on the Obama administration's designation of five "promise zones," two of which are rural.  Here's an excerpt from NPR's report, in which Michel Martin interviewed U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.  The headline is "U.S. Agriculture Secretary 'Convinced' Rural Revitalization Plan Will Work."
MARTIN: I want to mention that the first five promise zones include parts of Los Angeles, San Antonio, Philadelphia, southeastern Kentucky and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. And I know that you're particularly excited that a couple of these zones were in rural areas. So wanted to ask if you could just tell us how the idea came about, if you remember? 
VILSACK: Well, we had a conversation at the White House - when I say we, a number of Cabinet members - Kathleen Sebelius, Arne Duncan, Shaun Donovan from HUD, Education, HHS and myself and Tom Perez from Labor - had a conversation about the need for us to sort of layer our resources and to essentially leverage our resources. The thought was that if we all work together in a coordinated fashion, we would get actually more out of our investments. 
This effort was patterned after something that Shaun Donovan and others started with strong cities and what we were doing in rural areas with a thing called StrikeForce, really focusing our resources at USDA on trying to help people get into that middle class, deal with persistent poverty, which is prevalent in many, many rural areas. A lot of folks don't realize how much real poverty there is, which is why I was pleased that the president announced the islands in southeast Kentucky and the Choctaw Nation and tribe in Oklahoma.
Each promise zone will get five AmeriCorps workers, and grants applicants by agencies and entities within those zones will receive extra points in the competitive grant process.  Vilsack provides this illustration of how the program will work:
So the Highlands in southeast Kentucky has a revolving loan fund, which is designed to help small business start. USDA could come in with additional resources to increase that loan fund or can come in with a loan guarantee that can supplement that loan fund or make it easier for that company to get credit. Now the company gets credit, but they can't find skilled workers. 
We contact the Department of Labor and say, look, are there apprenticeship programs, are there worker training programs that would help returning veterans in this area, for example, be able to be employed by this small business to get this business up and going. It's a coordinated effort to try to address the needs of businesses, the needs of communities in a much more comprehensive way than just simply USDA taking a grant in one community and the Department of Transportation having a grant in some completely different community where they don't leverage each other, and they don't, basically, amplify each other.
For those concerned about rural poverty, this interview is worth a read in its entirety.  It acknowledges the problem of persistent poverty--principally a rural phenomenon. Among 703 persistent poverty counties, 571 are non metro.  This promise zone program is the first I have read about that takes seriously the phenomenon of poverty as a localized, place-based phenomenon.  To express it another way, the promise zone concept takes seriously the role of place in creating and perpetuating poverty.    

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