Obama signaled last month that he plans a new focus this year on
income inequality, which he called "the defining challenge of our
time", pushing to raise the minimum wage and find new ways to help
poor children break out of the cycle of poverty.
As part of this effort, Obama will create "promise zones" in San
Antonio, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, southeastern Kentucky, and the
Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, the White House said on Wednesday.
The announcement came on the 50th anniversary of a pledge by former
President Lyndon Johnson to wage a "war on poverty" which led to
government programs like Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and Head
Start preschool education programs.
Since 1967, poverty rates have fallen from close to 26 percent to 16
percent, the White House said. In 2012, 49.7 million Americans lived
in poverty, including 13.4 million children.
"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," Obama said in a statement marking the
anniversary of Johnson's pledge.
Obama will make his formal announcement about the "promise zones" at
2 p.m. EST (1900 GMT) on Thursday.
He first spoke about the plan in his 2013 State of the Union speech,
almost a year ago, pledging to focus government funding with
private-sector programs in 20 communities to create jobs, improve
schools, beef up public safety, and create better housing.
The designation is designed to help communities navigate programs
that already exist, said Megan Martin, a policy analyst at the
Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington.
"A lot of what they're offering is in fact not funding — they're
offering direct contact with the federal government, high-quality
technical assistance, up-to-date tools and resources for sites to
use," Martin said in an interview.
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Obama's creation of a "promise zone" in Kentucky received praise
from Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, who
represents the state.
"I wrote a letter last year supporting this designation because this
region has suffered enormous economic hardship over the last several
years," McConnell said in a statement, citing job losses in the coal
industry which he blamed on White House environmental policies.
The plan also called for tax incentives for businesses that invest
in impoverished neighborhoods and hire local people, and is modeled
after a program run by the city of San Antonio.
Obama has also said he will push to increase the minimum wage to
$10.10 per hour, up from $7.25, an effort unlikely to succeed
because of opposition from Republicans in Congress.
Democrats have taken up the cause ahead of the 2014 midterm
elections. Polls show Americans view Republicans as less
compassionate toward the poor.
Obama and Democrats have also pushed to extend an expiring program
that provides benefits to people out of work — something
Republicans have resisted, arguing that the cost of extending the
benefits should be offset with spending cuts.
But this week, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and
Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, both potential White House
contenders, plan major events describing their ideas for addressing
(Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal and Susan Heavey;
by Doina Chiacu, Rosalind Russell and Jonathan Oatis)
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