National Edition

A new initiative from the Obama administration offers new hope to high poverty areas

Published: Sunday, July 27 2014 6:45 a.m. MDT

Roger Brown, a sophomore at Hunter College, left, shakes hands with President Barack Obama at the end of an event where Obama mentioned Brown, who overcome poverty becoming the first in his family to attend college, in a speech about Obama's Promise Zones Initiative, on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. The Promise Zone Initiative is part of 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. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Jacquelyn Martin, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Sara-Jane Smallwood had made her way to the top: a bachelor’s degree in Indian American studies, a master’s in public policy from Indiana University and a job on the Hill, working as a policy analyst for her U.S. senator.

But Smallwood came from the bottom: a small town in Southeastern Oklahoma where more than 60 percent of the population lives below poverty. Her high school class of 35 people didn't hold a 10-year reunion, because several class members had died, and many were in and out of prison.

But even though hers was an anomalous story of success, she speaks of her hometown with love and pride. And in 2011, Smallwood — the descendant of a long line of influential Choctaw tribal leaders and the daughter of two school teachers — decided that of all the hard work she saw at the top, very little was reaching the bottom.

“I think what’s brought me back home is that I got frustrated with so many smart people working for the federal government who are dedicated, but it’s hard to understand the grassroots level,” Smallwood says.

Smallwood is now the coordinator in the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma for a new national anti-poverty initiative the Obama administration is calling Promise Zones. The idea is that communities across the country that are designated as Promise Zones will have help to cut through the bureaucratic red tape that can make it difficult to access already available federal funding.

The Promise Zone initiative doesn't have any dollar amount tacked to it, or award funding to chosen communities. Instead, it's an initiative to get things going at a grassroots level, Smallwood says. Of the 20 forthcoming Promise Zones, Obama has announced the location of five: Philadelphia, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Southeastern Kentucky and the Choctaw Nation. In Philadelphia, officials are using the designation to partner with a local college to provide job training. And in San Antonio, officials hope improving street lighting and demolishing abandoned buildings will boost public safety.

"There are communities in this country where no matter how hard you work, it’s virtually impossible to get ahead,” Obama said in his 2013 State of the Union address. Poverty, Obama said, should not be determined by place of birth.

But the idea isn't without its critics.

“We have a huge welfare system in place that is federally funded," says Rachel Sheffield, a poverty researcher for the Heritage Foundation. "It would be better to focus on our current welfare system rather than adding to it with another government approach.”

A nation in need

Life in the Choctaw Nation has been characterized as bleak because poverty is rampant. On average, one in five people living in the Choctaw Nation live under the poverty line, which means more than 50,000 people live on less than $12,000 a year. And in some communities in the Choctaw Nation, one in every two people live below that line. Some counties in Choctaw Nation experience a high school dropout rate of 14 percent — more than twice the national average.

A recent analysis by the New York Times found that Southeastern Oklahoma is one of the most difficult places to live in the country. Measuring things like median income, college education rates and unemployment, the Choctaw Nation fares worse than the national average in every category. One of the most striking disparities was that people in the Choctaw Nation have an average life expectancy of 74 years, almost six years shorter than the national average. And 41 percent of the population is obese, a staggering difference from the national average at 27.7 percent.

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