President Obama has announced a new federal initiative to increase economic development in five areas around the country, including southeastern Kentucky. The commonwealth’s “Promise Zone” will include eight counties (Bell, Clay, Harlan, Knox, Leslie, Letcher, Perry and Whitley), all coal-producing.
Times were tough in the Eastern Kentucky coalfields when President Johnson launched his “War on Poverty” in 1964. That year, 22,000 Kentuckians worked in the coal industry…a drop of 60 percent from the employment numbers of 1950.
Now, the number of people employed in the state’s coal industry is closer to 13,000. And the job losses have been starkest in Eastern Kentucky.
The Obama Administration’s “Promise Zone” initiative aims to create local-federal partnerships to diversify the region’s economy, and also address issues like housing and education. In a press conference, Obama called attention to the diverse faces of poverty in the nation, including rural poverty.
“There are islands of rural America where jobs are scarce; they were scarce even before the recession hit,” he said. “So young people feel like if they want to actually succeed they’ve got to leave town, they’ve got to leave their communities.”
The plan for Southeastern Kentucky, spearheaded by the Kentucky Highland’s Investment Corps, includes expanding college and career readiness programs for high school students and creating a $1.3 million revolving loan fund for small businesses. There’s also a proposed tax credit to encourage job creation in Promise Zones, which is subject to Congressional approval. But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says the zones can still succeed even without the credit.
“So the tax credits obviously would be helpful, but by no means are they definitive in terms of the success of this program,” he said. “Federal agencies working collaboratively with local and regional partners can make all the difference in the world.”
The other Promise Zones are in San Antonio, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Over the next three years, the Obama Administration will select 15 additional areas to receive support through the effort.