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Obama Tries to End the Cycle of Broken Poverty Promises

Pouring federal aid into poor communities hasn’t accomplished much in the past. But the Obama administration insists its Promise Zones program will be different.

An abandoned home on San Antonio's Eastside
(J. Michael Short)
Drive around San Antonio’s Eastside and you’ll notice the pockmarked roads, the strings of verdant but unoccupied residential lots and the roaming dogs -- off leash, sometimes in a pack, wandering without an owner in sight. While some blocks have sidewalks and streetlights, it’s striking how many don’t. Vacant houses have boarded up windows, chipped paint and rusty, slumped-over fences. Much of the area is boxed in by highways and a railroad, isolating the neighborhood from a bustling downtown less than a mile away. Beyond the visible signs of neglect are troubling statistics about the well-being of people who live on the Eastside. Their rates of unemployment, poverty and violent crime are all well above the city average. The percentage of adults without a high school diploma is nearly twice as high as in San Antonio overall.

But there are small traces of a turnaround. Bars and restaurants are starting to pop up. A refurbished pedestrian bridge with a view of the downtown skyline has become a gathering spot for outdoor yoga classes. Charter schools have opened. A cluster of contemporary townhomes, built by a Houston developer, stands in sharp contrast to the older, dilapidated buildings around it. 

In short, the Eastside is a very troubled place with pockets of potential. It is what the Obama administration had in mind last year when it launched its Promise Zones program, aimed at boosting selected low-income communities around the country. The Eastside was one of three urban neighborhoods chosen, along with rural areas in Kentucky and Oklahoma. Like the others, the Eastside receives preferential treatment when applying for federal grants related to employment, education, housing, health care and public safety. The initiative also calls for tax credits for firms that invest in the area and hire local workers. 

At the time of the announcement, the vice president of one Washington, D.C., think tank told The Washington Post that the Promise Zones program was “the biggest, most promising antipoverty strategy” in decades. As if to underscore the Obama administration’s confidence in the initiative, the White House declared this April that it would launch a second group of eight  Promise Zone communities. 

In selecting the first set of Promise Zones, President Obama elevated expectations by comparing the effort to the Harlem Children’s Zone, the renowned nonprofit that combines high-quality education with wraparound services for children and families in a 97-block area of central Harlem. The model is extensive. Residents have access to nutrition counseling, exercise classes, parenting classes, pre-kindergarten programs, charter schools, community centers and tax preparation assistance. It is also well funded. So far, the Harlem Children’s Zone has attracted more than $100 million in private philanthropic investment. Promise Zones is the White House’s effort to replicate the Harlem approach in other targeted areas.


But for all of the hype surrounding Promise Zones, early skeptics have pointed out that they sound an awful lot like discontinued programs from past administrations. Enterprise Zones, an idea popularized by Republican Rep. Jack Kemp of New York in the 1980s, focused on tax credits for businesses in areas of concentrated poverty. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration launched a parade of similar place-based programs with seemingly interchangeable names: Empowerment Zones, Enterprise Communities, Renewal Communities. The early rounds of Empowerment Zones -- the most famous of these efforts -- offered tax and regulatory relief to businesses, but also mixed in block grants. Over time, however, the Clinton administration abandoned grants and focused on tax breaks to spur economic activity. 

Despite this long history of showering selected poor areas with federal money, there is little tangible evidence of success. In 2006, the U.S. Government Accountability Office determined that some Empowerment Zones had indeed seen improvements in poverty, unemployment or growth in total jobs and businesses; however, it reported, those changes couldn’t be linked to federal policy and might be attributed to a better national economy or other outside forces. In a review this year of academic literature on past zone programs, economists David Neumark and Helen Simpson found almost no evidence that zones had created jobs or reduced poverty. Some research indicates that the government-designated zones actually drew jobs away from other places -- reshuffling the location of those jobs rather than creating new ones. Neumark and Simpson noted one major caveat from the literature: A few studies suggest the inclusion of block grants along with tax breaks did, in fact, have a positive impact on employment and wages, a finding they said deserves further examination.  

While past federal zone programs continue to be debated in academic circles, they are failures in one basic sense. Many of the areas that received help more than a decade ago remain poor today. West Philadelphia and Camden, N.J., for example, were an Empowerment Zone under President Clinton. San Antonio’s Eastside was part of an Enterprise Community. Today, all three of these areas are still depressed enough to qualify as Promise Zones under President Obama. 

It’s easy to see why Promise Zones has its skeptics. But supporters of the initiative say this effort represents a new twist on neighborhood revitalization. Whereas past interventions sought primarily to spur economic activity, Promise Zones tries to tackle a larger spectrum of social and health needs. Borrowing from the Harlem Children’s Zone, the strategy seeks to help students perform better in school, but also provides services to parents and other adults in the neighborhood. Former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, now the U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), argues that previous efforts didn’t link multiple kinds of assistance in the same community. With Promise Zones, he says, it’s not just about job creation or affordable housing or preschool, but about providing all of those supports at once. “That’s a much more holistic approach than has been taken in the past,” Castro insists. The Obama administration is hoping places like the Eastside will show that comprehensive, cradle-to-career social assistance can revive a depressed area in ways past federal programs did not.

If a Promise Zone could work anywhere, it would seem to be San Antonio. While all Zone applicants have to demonstrate a commitment from local political leaders, San Antonio is in a unique situation. A few months after the city won its designation last year, Castro was appointed to oversee HUD, the main federal agency coordinating the Promise Zones initiative. Castro’s appointment came in part because of his city’s record on expanding public preschool and spurring economic development in some of San Antonio’s poorer neighborhoods. In other words, San Antonio was already moving in the direction that the White House wanted to encourage. To the good fortune of the Promise Zone, Castro’s departure resulted in the city council selecting Councilwoman Ivy Taylor, whose district contained most of the Promise Zone, as the city’s interim mayor. (Last month Taylor was elected to a full term.)  

Because Castro and Taylor were already focused on turning around the Eastside, San Antonio had already received three major federal grants aimed at neighborhood revitalization -- a combined $54 million from federal agencies to increase educational achievement, reduce violent crime and replace public housing. While the Promise Zone as a whole includes 22 square miles, city officials have rebranded the four square miles where these three grants overlap as “EastPoint.”


President Obama speaks alongside Julián Castro, who is coordinating the Promise Zones initiative as the U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development. (Flickr/Jeff Blakley/U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development)

Though changes in the EastPoint area preceded the Promise Zone announcement, they have become the visible face of the larger community project. Federal assistance in EastPoint has focused simultaneously on providing better living conditions, improving schools and expanding job opportunities. With funding from HUD, the city tore down a public housing complex called Wheatley Courts and plans to replace it with mixed-income housing. Across the street, the school district is using another federal grant to turn a public middle school with declining enrollment into a combined school and community center with programming for adults and families in the evenings and on weekends. Both the school and the new housing complex will offer job training and other supports to help adults in the area find employment.

Since becoming a Promise Zone, the Eastside has received another $32 million in federal grants. As with the Harlem Children’s Zone, the funding pays for a suite of community supports. So far, the Eastside has received grants to establish a Head Start program for infants and toddlers; to address substance abuse; to offer job training at a youth center; to treat and prevent HIV and hepatitis C infections; to provide drug treatment and employment services to inmates leaving jail or prison; and to expand successful charter schools in the city. At least two more federal grants pay for comprehensive plans so that the neighborhood can formulate long-term strategies for economic development and improved public safety.

Spurred by the federal grants, San Antonio has sought to invest more of its own resources on the Eastside. This year, the city budgeted more than $17 million for street improvements in the area. Since last fall, the city and its nonprofit partners also impounded more than 900 stray animals, mowed more than 3,400 overgrown lots and repainted 15 houses. San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside, a nonprofit focused on economic development, gave grants to 50 small businesses for landscaping and storefront enhancements. 

The large sums of money flowing into the Eastside and other Promise Zones are reminders of the older federal programs that used tax expenditures and grants to help poor communities. But there is a difference in how the money is being spent. Tax breaks for economic development were central to past zone programs. With Promise Zones, tax incentives haven’t been approved by Congress, even though President Obama proposed them. 

The Clinton-era initiatives, such as Empowerment Zones, included millions in block grants for community development. In some cases, the money did end up going to child care and other family supports, but it also funded small business loans and the construction of new commercial centers. “The emphasis was on economic development,” says James Quane, an urban poverty researcher at Harvard University. “Clinton was mainly interested in bolstering employment.” 

The Obama initiative focuses more on human development. It’s based on the belief that people need higher levels of education and advanced skills to find jobs in a post-industrial marketplace. It also assumes that children’s physical and social environment affects their performance in school, which in turn affects their chances of finding jobs as adults. Thus, education and social services play a more prominent role in the Promise Zone vision than they did in the earlier programs. The same families that are getting upgrades to their streets, sidewalks and parks are gaining access to child care services, job training programs and an updated high school curriculum for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

What’s happening on the Eastside and in other Promise Zones is an intentional concentration of federal grants that complement one another. That’s different from how the federal government has historically tried to help poor areas. “Usually you’re getting funding for a specific purpose or maybe a few purposes,” says Valerie Piper, who is overseeing Promise Zones for HUD. “But you see greater impact when there are connections.” 

The Promise Zone designation forces federal and local officials to recognize and leverage those connections. With Promise Zones, almost a dozen federal agencies participate in regular calls with one another and with their local partners to discuss how their parallel grant initiatives can improve the overall community. Mike Etienne, director of the Eastside Promise Zone, says the program gives him direct access to high-level federal officials such as Piper; if he sees a need not being met in the neighborhood, he can ask Piper and her peers in other agencies to recommend interventions that will help. In that sense, part of what’s being tested with Promise Zones is a method for making the public sector more efficient and effective. “This is about governing,” Piper says. “It’s about improving the speed of government coordination across different levels.” 

The question of when and how to measure the impact of Promise Zone initiatives is one that will be debated for a long time. The program is designed to last for 10 years, meaning that even when President Obama leaves office, the first five zones will only be about one-third of the way through their intended lifespan. Because the zones were born of executive action, not a statute, nothing will prevent the next administration from stopping or fundamentally altering them. Some proponents will argue that even if the program does survive the full 10 years, a decade of federal aid isn’t enough time to expect a reversal of intergenerational poverty. 

Before San Antonio officials can assess changes to the Eastside neighborhood under the Promise Zone initiative, they will have to agree on what to track. The Obama administration envisioned the zones as data-driven projects, in which federal and local officials would be held accountable for their work. Yet as of May, the federal government and its local partners hadn’t decided which data they wanted to collect for the overall zone. In San Antonio, at least 17 local groups, plus the city, are involved in different projects around the Eastside; a handful of federal agencies are funding projects and receiving regular reports related to those specific grants, but not about conditions within the larger area. The Eastside partners have been meeting regularly to finalize a list of metrics, along with an overall Promise Zone scorecard for policymakers and the public. Still, with so many sources of funding, grant recipients and separate government agencies involved, it remains to be seen whether San Antonio can successfully stitch together a comprehensive dashboard for the area. 

Breaking Down San Antonio's Promise Zone


Ultimately, what federal officials hope to learn from the data is whether Promise Zones help poor communities and, if so, whether they could be successfully replicated in more places. The history of Enterprise Communities and Empowerment Zones shows that it’s difficult to draw definitive conclusions about impact, and Promise Zones is unlikely to be much different. Erika Poethig, a researcher at the Urban Institute and a former HUD official, notes that one of the key tools being used in Promise Zones is especially abstract and hard to measure: a commitment from the federal government to be a better partner. Unlike a business tax credit, which can be deployed the same way at each target site, the help being offered in Promise Zones will vary by locality.

Because the Eastside is receiving an array of different services at the same time, evaluators will also be hard-pressed to isolate the impact of each component, says Tracey Ross, a researcher at the Center for American Progress. “Was it the child care? Was it the afterschool activities at the housing complex? Was it changing the bus schedule so people can get to work on time? You can’t pinpoint what is contributing to what.” 

It’s very much an open question whether the increased financial investment and focus will move the needle on symptoms that city leaders hope to address. Based on statements from the White House about its early goals for Promise Zones, success would mean reduced poverty, lower unemployment, less violent crime, improved high school and college graduation rates, better public infrastructure, and greater private investment in the area -- a tall order. “It will take decades to turn that around,” says Poethig. “We didn’t get there overnight. We are not going to see solutions overnight.” 

Replicating the Promise Zones may be the greatest problem of all. Even if the data show that an uptick in grants revitalized the Eastside, the same help might not translate elsewhere. Promise Zones, by design, are places selected because they were already showing some signs of improvement. Similar federal programs might not work in extremely poor areas starting with fewer assets. In any case, the resources do not exist to provide an equivalent level of assistance to more than a small number of communities around the country. All these concerns have led some critics to charge that the fundamental idea of place-based social intervention, as embodied in all the federal efforts since the 1980s, is impractical and obsolete.

Nonetheless, many in San Antonio argue that the Eastside’s Promise Zone is already a success by a more modest standard: the way people perceive the area. Because of federal and city investments, conversations about prospects for change are taking place all over the neighborhood. The Promise Zone “has reinvigorated attention on this part on the town,” says Christine Drennon, director of urban studies at Trinity University in San Antonio. “Now it’s on the radar. Before, it wasn’t.” 

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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