Promise Zones Program Ramps Up Amid Uncertainty About Post-Obama Era

When the Obama administration announced the third and final round of Promise Zone communities in June, perhaps no applicant was more surprised to find itself on the list than South Los Angeles.

“We were kind of in disbelief when we got the news,” says Heddy Nam, director of the South Los Angeles Transit Empowerment Zone (SLATE-Z), a coalition of more than 50 nonprofit groups, educational institutions, public officials, and others that applied for the Promise Zone designation.

The award gives high-poverty communities easier access to some federal grants along with technical assistance – and SLATE-Z had worked hard to earn it. With Los Angeles Trade Technical College as the lead organization and strong support from city officials and Congresswomen Karen Bass and Lucille Roybal-Allard, it developed a plan to boost economic development and educational achievement along major transit lines in an area of almost 200,000 residents.

But a Central Los Angeles area had won a Promise Zone designation in the first round of awards, and what were the chances that one city would get two “zones”?

Furthermore, SLATE-Z had lost its bid to operate a Promise Zone in the second round of applications in 2015. So it was prepared for another rejection. But, Nam says, the coalition decided that it was worthwhile to draw up a strategy to boost South L.A. even if it was passed over again.

The attitude, she says: “We’re probably not going to get this thing, but it’s a historic opportunity.”

Communities across the country have made similar calculations since President Obama announced the Promise Zone Initiative in his State of the Union address in 2013, flooding the administration with more than 230 applications for just 22 designated zones (the number includes some applicants who tried more than once). What is the appeal?

Promise Zones Benefits

In announcing Promise Zones, Obama said the federal government would partner with high-poverty communities to boost economic development, improve education, fight crime, enhance public health, attract private investment, and achieve other goals.

The plan complements the administration’s larger effort to promote place-based antipoverty strategies, or those targeting specific geographic areas, such as Promise Neighborhoods (centering on schools), Choice Neighborhoods (public housing), and the Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation program (crime). But unlike those programs, there is no guaranteed money attached. Instead, the communities get:

  •  Preferences for more than 30 federal grant programs run by 13 agencies, ranging from the Rural Community Development Initiative (Agriculture Department) to the Economic Development Assistance Program (Commerce Department) to Community Services Block Grants (Health and Human Services Department).
  • A federal liaison to help them navigate the grant programs.
  • Five members of AmeriCorps Vista, the national-service program, to recruit and manage volunteers and otherwise help out.

The designations last for 10 years. Obama also proposed tax incentives to encourage hiring and investment in the zones, but the Republican-dominated Congress has failed to adopt the necessary legislation – a significant setback for the original vision.

Now that all of the winners have been named, the program will be under pressure to prove its approach can succeed given the inconclusive results of previous federal efforts to fight poverty in specific zones. Take, for example, Empowerment Zones and Enterprise Communities, created in 1993 to offer tax incentives and grants to distressed areas.

In a 2009 report, the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation said that a variety of studies into their impact had found little clear-cut evidence that they lowered poverty or boosted employment.

The Winners

The 22 Promise Zones share low academic achievement and high rates of poverty, unemployment, and crime – but vary widely geographically.

The Kentucky Highlands Promise Zone covers eight counties in a region that has been hit hard by loss of coal-mining jobs. The Los Angeles Promise Zone serves 165,000 residents in five neighborhoods with large shares of recent immigrants and a shortage of affordable housing. The Choctaw Nation Promise Zone comprises 10 counties and 11,734 square miles, with many families living without running water or telephone service.

During a press call to announce the final set of nine zones in June, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro said the 13 prior winners had obtained about $550 million in federal funding since January 2014. A news release touted successes in zones including Indianapolis’s IndyEast, which has received nearly $10 million in grants from seven agencies, helping to create 100 jobs, provide job training to former prisoners, and develop an apartment building for low-income senior citizens.

A Los Angeles company won $21 million in “new market tax credits” to build a steel manufacturing plant in the Choctaw Nation, it said, while federal money had helped lift the graduation rate at a Southeastern Kentucky high school and lower the unemployment rate in San Antonio’s EastPoint area.

Collective Impact

Of course, it can be difficult to determine how much federal money a community tapped specifically because of the Promise Zone  designation – at least in the absence of a control group.

“You’re never really going to be able to answer that,” says Dixon Slingerland, executive director of the Youth Policy Institute, the lead implementation partner in the L.A. Promise Zone. For one thing, he says, not all federal grant programs award preference points.

But he and others cite benefits that go beyond the dollars awarded, for example strengthening local antipoverty networks and their relationship with the federal and local governments.

“An important aspect of all this is the big change in the way providers, community developers, philanthropy, and federal agencies now do business,” says James Quane, associate director of the Joblessness and Urban Poverty Research Program at Harvard University, referring to the range of federal place-based programs. “Communities are buying into the idea,” he added in an email, “that poverty and its constituent parts are multidimensional” and must be tackled in a coordinated way.

Alison Becker, an official in the mayor’s office who heads the L.A. Promise Zone, praises the “collective impact” model at the heart of her program’s approach. Fifty participating groups meet on a regular basis through a leadership council and working groups, she says, each time getting a better understanding of what the others do. And that, she says, trickles down to their day-to-day work: “It’s a ripple that goes through organizations and winds up hitting and benefiting the families we serve.”

Promise Zones communities come to the program with different levels of sophistication. The L.A. Promise Zone and its related Promise Neighborhood have nabbed about $170 million from 14 federal agencies since 2013, Slingerland said. Before helping to win the Promise Zone designation, the Youth Policy Institute had also won Choice Neighborhoods and Byrne criminal justice grants.

West Philadelphia, designated a zone in the first round, had earlier benefited from a Choice Neighborhoods planning grant, a Byrne grant, and a privately funded revitalization effort – so also had a strong network of groups ready to hit the ground running.

“For us, the Promise Zone was an added organizing tool to reinforce things that had been started previously,” says Andy Frishkoff, executive director of Philadelphia Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a zone partner.

By contrast, South L.A. had not previously received such money and SLATE-Z had to build new alliances to compete for the Promise Zone designation. It worked to draw the zone’s boundaries so that it would bridge the divide between the Latino and black communities, who had not formally worked closely together before, Nam says.

“Hunger Games” Competition

South L.A.’s effort to become a Promise Zone was marked by controversy, reflecting one of the downsides of competitive grant making: there are winners and losers. The neighborhood was locked out of the first round of Promise Zone designations because applications were then limited to communities that had already won awards from other place-based programs like Promise or Choice Neighborhoods – a criterion that it did not meet.

That sparked bitterness in the community, especially since the L.A. Promise Zone got the nod despite having a lower poverty rate.

The administration dropped that requirement in the second and third rounds, paving the way for SLATE-Z to apply. But in its first attempt, it competed with another neighborhood, Boyle Heights, to get the mayor’s endorsement for its application. “One thing we have to struggle with,” Nam says, “is it does pit impoverished communities against each other.”

Susan Greenbaum, a Promise Zones critic, likens such competition to “The Hunger Games.” “They’re not increasing the size of the pie,” says Greenbaum, professor emerita of anthropology at the University of South Florida and author of the book Blaming the Poor: The Long Shadow of the Moynihan Report on Cruel Images about Poverty. “They’re adding a layer of privilege to who gets access to it. I don’t see where that helps the larger set of issues.”

But SLATE-Z savored its victory, partly because it would bring attention to a “socially marginalized” part of town, Nam says. “Priority access to money was definitely a driving factor in getting this coalition together,” she says, “but also the visibility this brings.”

In a sign of how complex it can be to set grants criteria, SLATE-Z won its designation only after persuading HUD to change its points system for assessing urban needs. In a debriefing after its 2015 loss, the coalition learned that South L.A. had scored low in a surprising area: housing. HUD gave communities with high levels of housing vacancies more points, a criterion the coalition argued was more appropriate for a city like Detroit. In South L.A., overcrowding was the problem.

After a strong advocacy effort and a visit to the area by Secretary Castro, HUD removed the housing requirement.

More Money, More Agencies?

When asked how the Promise Zones program could be improved, advocates uniformly said it should provide money to bolster capacity, for example to collect data and write grant proposals.

Dreama Gentry, executive director of Partners for Education at Berea College, which participates in the Kentucky Highlands Promise Zone, says the Kentucky effort would be further along if it had money for things like a communications plan to explain the program’s value to the public (“we struggled to get a website up”) and staff members to help smaller nonprofits apply for grants.

The Center for American Progress, in a 2014 report on Promise Zones, suggested the administration provide a small initial planning grant, which could especially help zones not involved in place-based programs before.

Promise Zone leaders also continue to push for tax credits. “We have a lot of businesses in southeastern Oklahoma that really are struggling, a lot of small businesses that could really use that boost,” says Sara-Jane Smallwood, coordinator of the Choctaw Nation Promise Zone.

Smallwood highlighted another concern at testimony before a House appropriations subcommittee in March: Most statutes authorizing federal grant competitions preclude preference points, which she said has “sharply limited the usefulness of the Promise Zone designation.”

Saying she had broad support from other Promise Zones, Smallwood proposed draft legislation to allow the zones to get preference points or special consideration when applying for any federal competitive grant or technical assistance.

Responding to those suggestions, a White House official said in effect that the administration has to work with the Congress it has — one that is reticent to make new money available for the Promise Zones program.

The administration is working with federal agencies to encourage more programs to apply preference points, she said, but some cannot do so without legislation. And officials have consistently given priority to getting congressional approval of the proposed Promise Zones tax credits, she said.

Other Revenue Streams

Some Promise Zones are tapping other revenue sources to supplement the federal money. The Kentucky Highlands Zone, for example, got a $250,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission for start-up and implementation efforts.

Philanthropy is playing a big role in some communities. In Philadelphia, Frishkoff co-chairs a group of “placed-based funders” within the Philanthropy Network Greater Philadelphia, which has identified the Promise Zone as a priority area for matching nonprofits to grants.

Fifty foundations have pumped more than $8.5 million into the L.A. Promise Zone and its related Promise Neighborhood program since 2013, the Youth Policy Institute’s Slingerland says. And both the L.A. zone and SLATE-Z got help with their applications from LA n Sync, an initiative of the Annenberg Foundation that helps coordinate efforts in the Greater Los Angeles area to pursue and win major funding opportunities.


One shadow hovering over the Promise Zones program: the November elections, which will usher out the program’s architect, President Obama. Will the new president give it the same priority?

“That keeps me up at night,” says Akilah Watkins-Butler, head of the social change portfolio at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, which provides technical assistance to support federal antipoverty programs. “Obama and his policies have been a very powerful force for communities.”

Administration officials say they are staying the course, reassuring the zones that HUD and the U.S. Agriculture Department “have put into place strong staff teams” that will “provide continuity to the designees across transitions in administrations” for the full 10 years.

It’s safe to predict that the Promise Zones program would thrive more if Democrats won the White House in November, especially if they also controlled the new Congress. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign website does not specifically endorse existing place-based programs, but she has proposed a $125 billion Economic Revitalization Initiative to help “communities left behind” and  explored theories about why some communities thrive more than others during a 2015 Center for American Progress roundtable discussion.

Republican candidate Donald Trump has not articulated an antipoverty strategy, although he has said he expects to agree with proposals by Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House. Ryan unveiled a plan  in June that emphasizes work requirements, measuring results, and streamlining federal programs.

Evaluating Results

Assuming the Promise Zones program continues, future administrations will be called on to evaluate what it has accomplished.

Some experts said federal agencies should provide more technical assistance to help communities measure the results of their place-based strategies.  “Important lessons are being lost about what’s working and what’s not,” says Quane of Harvard University. “There hasn’t been a coordinated effort to evaluate the impact of these initiatives that communities can learn from when deciding how to go about these kinds of collective enterprises (and what not to do).”

All Promise Zone designees are required to identify specific outcomes they hope to achieve and promise to track them.

But Frishkoff of the West Philadelphia Promise Zone said he hopes the administration will develop a “shared methodology” to give all of the zones “some sense together about how we should be measuring our progress.” He adds: “I think this will happen; it just hasn’t happened at the speed we would have liked.”

Asked about evaluation, the White House official pointed to HUD’s Promise Zones web portal, which houses documents including a draft framework on how local partners should share information on outcomes with each other and with federal agencies. Another draft document says federal agencies will work with Promise Zones to collect data that could be used in future evaluations, measuring indicators like public safety, job creation, school quality, and new investments.

Promise Zones will undoubtedly experience growing pains if it survives, but advocates hope Washington does not expect quick fixes. “To transform a community,” says Tracey Ross, associate director of the Center for American Progress’s Poverty to Prosperity Program, “is going to take more than a couple of years.”


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