White House Has Plan to Push Poor Communities Up Ladders of Success

A new federal program aims to turn the nation's poorest communities into model cities and towns.

Posted: 02/14/2013 02:43 PM EST

It's an unfortunate fact that too often the ZIP code a person is born in often dictates how far he or she will go in life. But members of President Obama's administration are hoping to change that fact through a new program in development called Ladders of Opportunity, according to White House Domestic Policy Council director Cecilia Muñoz.

The program aims to give a leg up to the nation's poorest communities using a broad range of investment and resources from the federal government and the private sector. Like the Department of Education program Race to the Top, there will be a competitive, application process from which 20 communities will be chosen to be a promise zone. The ultimate goal is to help local leaders and residents build the kinds of communities they'd want to live in if they had a real choice. They ideally would include good places to live and work and a high-performing school system.

As Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett told reporters Thursday, the idea stems from Obama's experience as a community organizer. He often found himself frustrated by the lack of alignment between state, local and federal programs. They weren't administered in a "very disparate way," she said, instead of targeted and focused. Even today, communities wrestle with ways to meet different programs' criteria, when the programs should be tailored to fit communities' needs.   

"The whole goal is to make our efforts focused and targeted and look at it from the perspective of someone who's living in the community rather than from a programmatic perspective," Jarrett explained.

Jarrett says that there will be metrics for success, but also a good deal of flexibility in dealing with each community's unique needs, challenges and opportunities for success.

Details of how the program will work are still being developed, but one component will be replacing federally assisted public housing with mixed-income homes. The program also will provide education support for both parents and children, to help ensure kids get on the path to opportunity.

Aligning resources and unifying approaches will be a critical part of the program, based sometimes on existing success models, such as the Housing and Urban Development agency's Choice Neighborhoods program and the Harlem Children's Zone. Most important, Racquel Russell, Obama's deputy assistant for Urban Affairs and Economic Mobility, explained, the federal government will act as a true partner to each community chosen.

"We'll deploy federal employees so there's boots on the ground helping them break down bureaucratic barriers that often plague these communities, and facilitate and coordination and alignment of investments and resources that they get as a promise zone as well as existing resources coming into the community," she said.

Jarrett believes the communities that don't make the first round will still benefit from having tried. One of the reasons Race to the Top has been so successful is that the application process alone forces people to think innovatively about how they want to improve the quality of life in their communities, she said.

 

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