When President Barack Obama first announced the creation of his Promise Zones in early 2014, the initiative was a departure from most place-based, anti-poverty initiatives in the past. For one, there was no mention of lump-sum block grants, a contrast from federal programs like President Bill Clinton’s “empowerment zones” in the 1990s. Instead, the designated distressed communities — there were five Promise Zones at the start; now there are 13 — would get preferential status when applying for federal grants related to housing, education, employment, recidivism and other areas. They wouldn’t automatically receive any funding.
It was a setup that encouraged healthy competition for funds — the federal government awarding the best proposals for specific programs demonstrating data-proven approaches geared at combating poverty.
Earlier this month, the “competition” for funding took an unprecedented turn. For the first time ever, two Promise Zones — Los Angeles and Philadelphia — earned a grant worth $1.9 million over three years to work in tandem on decreasing high school dropouts and boosting college enrollment. With the money from the grant, 25 AmeriCorps members will be deployed to each city starting this fall, providing college and career advising to high school students. They’ll be trained on a relational model borrowed from Chicago public schools that has demonstrated unordinary success in part by treating advisers as “coaches” instead of “counselors.”
The dual-city grant is notable for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a test case for coordinating multi-state efforts among the Promise Zones, something that’s likely to be replicated in the future. Obama’s initiative was constructed as a policy laboratory for anti-poverty interventions, and by testing a single strategy in two settings simultaneously, certain patterns are bound to emerge quicker: what works well in one environment but doesn’t work well in another; what might be scaled up across all cities; what’s universally successful or universally a flop. Splitting the grant allows for more diverse data across different geographies.
“One of the reasons we wanted the two-Promise Zone project was to exchange best practices across the zones,” says Dixon Slingerland, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Youth Policy Institute, the lead agency on the grant that will also be the sponsor employer for the AmeriCorps members. Aside from the separate locations in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, the variables tied to the college and career advising will be closely aligned, making for a valuable comparison. “All of the AmeriCorps members will be trained together and have the same mission in mind.”
Second, the AmeriCorps grant fills a void in the educational agenda of both Philadelphia and Los Angeles, two of the original five Promise Zones. “We tend to think of cradle-to-career pipeline for the Promise Zone,” says Owen Franklin, director of Philadelphia’s Promise Zone Initiative. And while Philly has established strong local partnerships focused on early-childhood and secondary education — including the School District of Philadelphia, which secured a Gear Up grant last year worth more than $29 million over seven years that will be applied to some of the schools within the Promise Zone — so far there’s been a need for more resources on the career end of the pipeline.
These college and career coaches will help. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office announced that 25 advisers will serve 1,440 students each year, or, 58 per AmeriCorps member. The ratio will be slightly better in Philly: one member for every 40 students, spread out across four high schools (three of them have a student body that’s considered 100 percent economically disadvantaged). That’s a steep improvement over the “roughly 700 students for every guidance counselor in the city,” according to Franklin.
“The grant that they applied for, which appraised high school counselors or a set of near-peer counselors, is based on a model that’s been used in other places and boosted college enrollment by up to 20 percent,” says Jed Herrmann, senior adviser to the CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service (the federal agency that doled out the grant). “What’s really exciting about doing this in two different places is, while there are many challenges that are unique to communities, there are also many shared challenges.”
Groundbreaking as it might be, the dual-city grant may do little to shield the Promise Zones from critiques that have been volleyed on both the right and the left.
It’s understandable why there are skeptics. Previous place-based federal programs have not come close to yielding the intended results. “In a review this year of academic literature on past zone programs, economists David Neumark and Helen Simpson found almost no evidence that zones had created jobs or reduced poverty,” cited one report by Governing. There was, however, a (potential) silver lining in the reviews: “Neumark and Simpson noted one major caveat from the literature: A few studies suggest the inclusion of block grants along with tax breaks did, in fact, have a positive impact on employment and wages, a finding they said deserves further examination.”
That mix of tax incentives and direct funding was precisely the goal of the Promise Zones all along. The outlines of Obama’s initiative tried to combine the best of direct funding of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty with the tax-incentive-geared “enterprise zones” of George H.W. Bush. However, the tax breaks that the President has repeatedly called for — related to hiring and investing in the designated distressed areas — remain blockaded in Congress.
Let’s hope that whoever is elected president in 2016 can get Congress on board with the tax incentives, an essential missing piece for executing the cradle-to-career objectives of the program. Otherwise, we’ll never be able to fairly judge the true merits of the Promise Zones.
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Malcolm was a Next City 2015 equitable cities fellow, and is a contributing writer for the Fuller Project for International Reporting, a nonprofit journalism outlet that reports on issues affecting women. He’s also a contributing writer to POLITICO magazine, Philadelphia magazine, WHYY and other publications. He reports primarily on criminal injustice, urban solution and politics from his home city of Philadelphia.