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OPINION - Promise zones

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) President Obama today is announcing economic “promise zones” – areas where federal help will attempt to create jobs. A neighborhood in San Antonio was picked as a trial promise zone. So was West Philadelphia. The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, the victims of the trail of tears, will take part in the program. And the poorest region of Appalachia, southeastern Kentucky, also made the cut.

But let’s see how the program might hold up if we apply it to a very specific case study: the family of Dasani Coates, of whom I wrote about in yesterday’s blog . She’s the 11-year-old girl who lives in a homeless shelter in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn with her mother, her step-father, and her six siblings. Let’s imagine Fort Greene was picked as a promise zone as well.

That should be good news for Supreme, Dasani’s step-father. He’s the kind of person the promise zone is supposed to help: of working age (in his 30s), able-bodied, long term unemployed, with a need to support his family. The promise zone comes with better after-school programs so parents with children can work. There are police grants to make sure the criminal element from neighboring Bed-Stuy doesn’t push into Fort Greene. There would be new programs to help young adults get GEDs and job training. Companies that come into the area would get tax credits to open their doors, and more tax credits based on how many workers they hire.

Fortunately, Supreme already has a skill. The New York Times reports he was a barber. He’d made good money cutting people’s hair – particularly in a neighborhood where young men put a premium on hair style and personal appearance. Things unraveled for Supreme because of his drug use. He’d spend his tips on crack cocaine. Soon he was unreliable – not showing up for work, and watching his customers go elsewhere. He has a temper; his remaining clientele found him unpleasant and argumentative. When he was high, most people wouldn’t let him anywhere near them with scissors or a razor. He dropped out altogether, eventually becoming a mule for a drug gang. His job was to shuttle cocaine from the Carolinas to New York. As an addict, he’d be paid in drugs instead of cash. He was eventually caught, landed in prison, and met his new wife after serving a 6-year sentence.

The Times tells Dasani’s story; Supreme is a secondary character. We know that he doesn’t actively look for work. He is zoned out for hours after getting his methadone. He’s still an occasional drug user – disappearing from his family for days at a time when on a binge. Some days he doesn’t get up, and sleeps away on a stained mattress that sits on the floor of a single room that his family stays in at a homeless shelter.

What does the promise zone program mean to this man? Absolutely nothing. He has none of the drive or life skills to take advantage of any resource that the White House is about to drop into his lap. We might as well offer him a round trip to the moon. Even if we allowed him to forego work and gave him money directly, it would be wasted. (This is already happening. The Times wrote about the squandering that happens on the first of the month when the public assistance money arrives.)

I’m certain we have many people who are similar to Supreme in the promise zones. The trial area in San Antonio must have many, many people who don’t speak English. Southeastern Kentucky happens to be the marijuana-growing capital of the east, where many growers partake of their crop. West Philly, the neighborhood where Drexel University struggles to attract students because it isn’t safe, is a den of street-corner prostitution and drug dealing. The only curious choice is the five counties in southern Oklahoma that are part of the Choctaw Nation. The tribe owns seven casinos, but apparently through corruption or incompetence still can’t raise its members out of poverty.

Supreme is the problem. He has a skill. He has the means to earn money. He brought seven hungry mouths into the world and can’t manage to get himself out of bed to support them. We will quickly learn that the problems in the promise zones have very little to do with policy, and have a great deal to do with people. Federal money doesn’t change those problems.

I also recall President Obama promising us that tax dollars wouldn’t be wasted. But that’s a promise from a different time. Different zone.

Chris Conley

Image: File:Street Haircut (5375099791).jpg|thumb|Street Haircut (5375099791) via WikiCommons.