Promise Zones are good, but they are not enough – Sasha Abramsky

Last week, President Obama announced the creation of five Promise Zones; economically distressed areas that would now have more federal grants channeled their way and see anti-poverty efforts streamlined and bureaucratic red-tape cut through, investments in which, by private companies, would be eligible for tax breaks.

The Promise Zones are important innovations: after all, the interplay of economic distress and geography is profound, and the lottery of place – the idea that where you are born, educated, where you live and where you search for work all hugely effect your life prospects – is a huge part of the story of poverty. Given this, tailoring responses, and targeting resources, to meet the needs of individual cities or counties makes a lot of sense.

But I hope that the focus on the Promise Zones doesn’t eclipse the larger story of twenty-first century American poverty and the rampant inequality and insecurity that serve as petri dishes in which poverty grows. For that story is one in which modern-day poverty oftentimes transcends geography; one in which millions of individuals around the country who lost work during the Great Recession have experienced a stark decline in their incomes and a massive contraction in their sense of possibility in recent years.

Six years ago, the American economy began experiencing an employment catastrophe the likes of which the country hadn’t witnessed since the dog days of the Great Depression. Between December 2007 and mid-2010, roughly 8.7 million jobs vanished. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the country’s unemployment rate doubled during the recession, from 5 percent at its start to 10 percent by the fall of 2009. In many parts of the country, especially in the industrial Midwest, California and Nevada, unemployment shot well beyond the ten percent mark.

Perhaps as significantly, more than 4 percent of the workforce ended up as long-term unemployed, meaning they had been looking for jobs, without success, for at least six months. This was a far higher number than that generated by any other post-World War Two recession.

Nearly four years on, America’s unemployment data is markedly better. Nationally, it’s down to 6.7 percent –still more than 10 million Americans, but several million fewer than was the case four years ago.

The falling unemployment pool is good news. But there are several catches. The first, and largest, is that since the recession started millions of working aged adults have grown so discouraged that they have simply stopped looking for work, and, thus, paradoxically are longer considered unemployed. The percentage of working-age adults in the workforce is now down below 63 percent, the lowest level since the late 1970s. So, yes, the official unemployment rate is down; but scratch below the surface and it turns out that part of that decline is the result of a smoke-and-mirrors illusion – if fewer people without work are counted as being unemployed, it suddenly becomes a whole lot easier to reduce official unemployment numbers.

The second catch is that there are huge regional variations – on a scale larger than that captured by the Promise Zones. Despite an improving economy and a budget that has moved from spectacular deficits to significant surpluses, California, the country’s most populous state, continues to be bedeviled by high unemployment. Statewide, it stands at 8.5 percent; and in many Central Valley counties it is far higher. The District of Columbia, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada and Rhode Island also all have unemployment rates far higher than the national average.

Thirdly, despite the overall improvements in employment, the picture remains bleak for the long-term unemployed. For older workers, in particular, the Great Recession has meant a rolling calamity, a collapse in living standards, and the very real prospect of permanent downward mobility. Many have no chance of finding private sector work; many others can find work but only in jobs that pay a small fraction of what they previously earned.

Nationally, in 2014 fifteen percent of all Americans now live below the poverty line – and millions more families live barely above it, their ability to make ends meet utterly precarious, dependent on nothing going wrong, on no unexpected expenses arising, on no sudden cuts to their weekly work hours, and on no price spikes around food, gas, or any other staple.

All-too-often, the men and women whom I interviewed for my book The American Way of Poverty had lost jobs and homes, access to employer-provided health insurance and pensions, despite living nowhere near geographically identified poverty hotspots.

Without a renewed focus nationally on job training investments; without more ambitious federal efforts to make higher education more affordable; without legislative efforts to boost the minimum wage and to protect the earnings power of people whose careers have been stood on end and who can now find work only in a casualized service sector; and, ultimately, without investments in public works to provide income and meaningful employment to the long-term unemployed, the country will continue to be scarred by two related crises: an epidemic of long-term unemployment, even as the broader economy recovers; and an epidemic of downward mobility into minimum (or near-minimum) wage, poverty-level work.

So, yes, the Promise Zones are a good idea, a good down payment on a broader anti-poverty strategy. But, at the same time, Congress and the Administration have to get serious about embracing national anti-poverty, and pro-quality-employment, measures and investments as well.

– Sasha Abramsky is a freelance journalist based in Sacramento, California. His work has been published by the New Yorker online, the Nation, the American Prospect, Salon and many other publications. Abramsky’s latest book, The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives (Nation Books, 2013) was listed by the New York Times as being one of the 100 Notable Books of 2013.

This post is part of the War on Poverty blog series from REDF.