Promise Zones: Round Two

On September 19, the Obama administration announced a second opportunity for low-income communities to be designated as Promise Zones.

Winning communities will receive preferential treatment in subsequent federal grant competitions, as well as technical assistance to “help local leaders in navigating federal programs,” according to a HUD overview. They may also become eligible for tax incentives, subject to their enactment by Congress.

Five communities were designated as Promise Zones in the first competition in January: San Antonio, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, the Southeastern Kentucky Highlands, and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Fifteen more are planned to be announced by the end of 2016.

While the program is still new, the administration is already touting its early successes. According to a HUD press release:

The work being done in these communities is already helping to move the needle in key areas. For example, graduation rates have reached 90 percent in the San Antonio Promise Zone; 2,000 kids in Los Angeles were able to find a summer job through a youth employment initiative; 900 unemployed people in Southeastern Kentucky have been connected to a job; and over 700 households and 50 businesses in remote southeast Oklahoma will soon have access to clean, safe drinking water for the first time.

On the other hand, according to a more skeptical story on the first-round competition in The Nonprofit Quarterly:

While the administration acknowledges that Promise Zones are modeled substantially on Empowerment Zones, an advisor to the program, James Quane, the associate director of the Joblessness and Urban Poverty Research Program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, says “this is a new twist.” It had better offer something new, as the experience of the Empowerment Zones was mixed at best. Some were distinctly unsuccessful, while for others, there were implications that the tax incentives basically involved moving jobs from one community to another rather than generating substantial new employment.

According to a report from the Center for American Progress, the work will be substantially data-driven:

Outcomes at the systems level: The Obama administration is looking to support efforts aimed at community-wide outcomes—for example, improving the educational system that serves all students in a community, rather than a single program that helps a fraction of students. The goal of the Promise Zones initiative is to take systemic action, which requires stakeholders to create common goals, follow shared metrics, and redirect resources accordingly. For example, the Los Angeles Promise Zone is tracking 23 different indicators at the individual, family, and household levels for 10 core outcomes, such as improved academic performance in schools and the transformation of schools into community hubs where families can access their resources. This data will help the city and its partners ensure they are on track to reach their goals and course correct when necessary.

Data-driven results: In their proposals, Promise Zones applicants are required to describe the evidence that supports the work they plan to continue or undertake. In addition, communities must manage, share, and use data for evaluation and continuous improvement; this is critical for strategies with less supporting evidence than others. This is particularly helpful to ensure that stakeholders are focused on their shared goals. Furthermore, these data will help the federal government assess the effectiveness of local efforts and direct future funding toward the strategies that have been proven to work.

Applications for the program are due by November 21.


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