What Obama’s Promise Zones could mean to L.A.


President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address Tuesday is certain to focus on issues of inequality and poverty. And what he has to say will have particular resonance in Los Angeles. Building on efforts four years in the making, the president announced this month that the city has been chosen to be one of five designated U.S. Promise Zones.

What will this mean for the city? Judging by the early success of another federal program in Los Angeles, Promise Neighborhoods, the impact could be significant and enormously positive.

First, some background. Since 2010, the White House Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative has been laying the groundwork for a new approach to fighting poverty. The idea has been to concentrate intently on neighborhoods, creating Promise Neighborhoods, which focus on improving educational opportunities and creating a cradle-to-college-and-career pipeline; Choice Neighborhoods, which focus on housing, infrastructure and safety; and the safe-neighborhoods strategy of Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation, which focuses on community-based solutions to crime.


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The programs are based on the idea that poverty can’t be addressed in a vacuum. Effectively educating impoverished children, for example, requires addressing the issues they face outside the classroom as well, which can include such things as crime, substandard housing and inadequate nutrition. To address the range of issues poor families face, the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative promotes collaboration among federal agencies used to pursuing separate agendas, including the departments of Education, Housing and Urban Development, and Justice.

In July 2013, Los Angeles Promise Neighborhoods were launched in East Hollywood and Pacoima, and these initiatives have embraced the same kind of cross-silo collaboration. The Youth Policy Institute, as the lead agency in the Los Angeles effort, has partnered with the Los Angeles Unified School District, city and county agencies, police and a range of foundations, nonprofits and businesses. Mayor Eric Garcetti has been a committed advocate. And more than 30 community-based organizations are receiving sub-grants from the federal funding.

The Los Angeles Promise Neighborhood grant, which serves 18,000 youths and their families in East Hollywood and Pacoima, is based on the successful model of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which works intensively with families at every stage, from birth on. Among our first goals in Los Angeles is transforming 19 public schools into full-service community hubs, offering wraparound services that address education and poverty together. In addition, a Choice Neighborhoods planning grant will focus on revitalizing distressed housing in Hollywood and Pacoima, and a Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation grant will help the two neighborhoods reduce violent crime in partnership with the city attorney and the Los Angeles Police Department.

Now that Los Angeles has been designated a Promise Zone, the effects of this new war on poverty will be felt on a much wider scale. The Promise Zone includes high-poverty neighborhoods in East Hollywood, Pico-Union, Westlake and Koreatown, and provides federal assistance to help these areas break through bureaucratic barriers and gain opportunities for funding and support.

But even with all this help, it won’t be easy. Needs are high for the 165,000 residents of the Promise Zone. The poverty rate in the zone is 35%, and in certain census block groups, 100% of youth are living in poverty. The zone encompasses some of the nation’s most densely populated areas, including the four most densely populated of Los Angeles’ 272 neighborhoods. The zone’s violent crime rate is more than twice the overall city rate.


Some question whether the Promise Zone should overlap with Hollywood, where investment has outpaced other areas. But the application required that the existing Promise Neighborhood had to be included in its entirety and form the basis for the Promise Zone. More important, though, as USC professor Manuel Pastor told The Times, an anti-poverty program in a gentrifying neighborhood can lead to low-income residents benefiting from increased economic activity instead of leaving those residents locked out of jobs and housing. Los Angeles is a city in which unimaginable wealth and unacceptable poverty exist side by side, and the Promise Zone uses the city’s advantages to benefit its children.

One of the most exciting aspects of the White House strategy is that it can serve as a magnet for philanthropy and related initiatives. In Los Angeles, philanthropic organizations and foundations led by the Annenberg Foundation and a partnership known as LA n Sync have pledged private support to these federal initiatives as well as collateral initiatives that will support and eventually expand them. Organizations like L.A.’s Promise and First AME Church are ready to hit the ground running with the next generation of Promise Neighborhoods in South Los Angeles, as in other communities throughout the city and state.

The young people in our programs face hardships that have led many to write them off entirely. We now have a chance to prove that gang violence, widespread unemployment, educational disparities and grinding poverty can be overcome with an unwavering commitment to work together.

America owes these children no less of a promise.

Dixon Slingerland is executive director of the Youth Policy Institute. Veronica Melvin is president of L.A’.s Promise, an organization that works to transform education, health and social outcomes for South Los Angeles families.

A new war on poverty is being fought in some of the city’s neighborhoods.

Dixon Slingerland is executive director of the Youth Policy Institute. Veronica Melvin is president of L.A’.s Promise, an organization that works to transform education, health and social outcomes for South Los Angeles families.