U.S. Agriculture Secretary 'Convinced' Rural Revitalization Plan Will Work

President Obama is hoping to fight poverty, in five so-called "promise zones." The government is targeting those areas for economic revitalization. Host Michel Martin and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack take a look at the rural communities involved, and the special challenges to fight poverty there.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. All this month, we and many of our colleagues have been talking about poverty and whether different strategies to help the poor are the right ones. Part of the equation is access to resources like the Internet. And in a few minutes, we'll look at how African-Americans and Latinos are faring when it comes to web access and new innovations in tech. We're going to do that by checking in with contributors from our #BlacksinTech series and #NPRLatism series. But first, we want to take a look at a new Obama administration initiative to tackle poverty that the administration is calling promise zones.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: They're neighborhoods where we will help local efforts to meet one national goal - that a child's course in life should be determined not by the ZIP Code she's born in, but by the strength of her work ethic and the scope of her dreams.

MARTIN: The initiative is supposed to bring together federal agencies and local leaders to improve access to quality schools and affordable housing, improve public safety and create jobs. The administration says the zones will get a competitive edge when applying for federal grants. And the president has called on Congress to give tax incentives to businesses that invest in their communities. The president recently announced the first five promise zones, and there will be 15 more to come. We wanted to know more about this, so we've called upon the secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack. He's speaking from his office at the USDA in Washington, D.C. Welcome, Mr. Secretary. Thank you for speaking with us.

TOM VILSACK: Well, it's nice to be with you.

MARTIN: I want to mention that the first five promise zones include parts of Los Angeles, San Antonio, Philadelphia, southeastern Kentucky and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. And I know that you're particularly excited that a couple of these zones were in rural areas. So wanted to ask if you could just tell us how the idea came about, if you remember?

VILSACK: Well, we had a conversation at the White House - when I say we, a number of Cabinet members - Kathleen Sebelius, Arne Duncan, Shaun Donovan from HUD, Education, HHS and myself and Tom Perez from Labor - had a conversation about the need for us to sort of layer our resources and to essentially leverage our resources. The thought was that if we all work together in a coordinated fashion, we would get actually more out of our investments.

This effort was patterned after something that Shaun Donovan and others started with strong cities and what we were doing in rural areas with a thing called StrikeForce, really focusing our resources at USDA on trying to help people get into that middle class, deal with persistent poverty, which is prevalent in many, many rural areas. A lot of folks don't realize how much real poverty there is, which is why I was pleased that the president announced the islands in southeast Kentucky and the Choctaw Nation and tribe in Oklahoma.

MARTIN: We are going to speak with the head of the group from Kentucky, and we'll be speaking with him for tomorrow's program. Can I just ask you to amplify that a little bit more? There's been a lot of talk this week, and as we have been focusing on poverty, in part because of - this is the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's announcement of his war on poverty and a lot of talk about what strategies have worked and not worked and what we do know and what we don't know. A lot of people say we don't talk enough about poverty. But I wanted to ask you specifically about rural poverty. Is there a picture that people just aren't getting who are not connected to these communities anymore?

VILSACK: Well, I think so because if you take a look at the persistently poor counties in the United States, there's 703 of them. And of the 703, 571 persistently poor counties are rural in nature. So it is very much a rural issue, and one of the reasons is because the wage levels and income levels of folks who live, work and raise their families in rural communities are significantly below what you would see in urban-suburban areas. In fact, the median earnings for a wage-earner or salary-worker in a rural area is about $6,500 a year less than it is an urban or suburban areas. So that's why we are focused not just on one area of the country, but in all areas, trying to deal with this holistically.

MARTIN: But what can you do with these promise zones that you can't do now? I mean, that, I think, would be the kind of question is, where is the added value here?

VILSACK: Well, I think there are a couple of things. First of all, these promise zone areas do and will receive priority points in terms of competitive grants. And oftentimes, the difference between a winning competitive grant for a program may be a point or two. So if you get extra points because you're in a promise zone, you are going to be more competitive in terms of getting education resources or USDA, ag resources, rural development resources. Secondly, it provides additional staff. Each promise zone area is going to receive the benefit of five AmeriCorps volunteers. So they're going to help consolidate, coordinate, learn more about the needs of a particular promise zone area and be able to communicate those effectively to the various departments.

And third, I think what's really important is that we will be working collaboratively. When I say we - various departments of government. Instead of USDA doing its own thing, separate and apart from what transportation is doing or what human service is doing or what education is doing, we're all going to know what each other is doing and we're going to look for ways in which we can leverage our resources and combine our resources for more effective use of those resources. We've seen a sort of a pilot of this within USDA, where we've broken down the silos within my department, in the StrikeForce states. And we've seen increased investment and increased activity in those impoverished areas.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with the secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack. We're talking about the Obama administration's new promise zone program. He's talking about how he hopes this will work in the more rural parts of the country. Two of the five newly announced promise zones are in rural areas. You know, we recently had a conversation with the author of a book called "A People's History of Poverty in America" - Stephen Pimpare, he's a professor at Columbia University. And asked him about this concept and he said, look, this has been tried before - the so-called enterprise zones in the '80s and the '90s. He said that these kinds of programs because they're not - they operate on the margins, essentially, and while margins are important, that they tend not to have a lasting impact. It just isn't big enough. And I'd like to ask you if you can address that.

VILSACK: With all due respect, I just don't think that this is the same as what has been tried in the past. Enterprise zones have been primarily focused on tax policy. It has not been a situation where education was investing money, where transportation was investing money, where the United States Department of Agriculture and Rural Development folks were investing money. I think this understands that at the end of the day it really has to be driven locally. That's why we'll be working with a number of economic development groups in Kentucky. We'll be working, obviously, with the tribe to have them identify where their needs are, where their strategic opportunity are.

If Congress is willing to do tax credits - all the better. But even if they don't do the tax credits, this is still going to - I think is going to make a difference. And I know it's going to make a difference because we've seen increased investment in housing, in conservation and in business development within USDA's programs because we have coordinated various mission areas in specific geographic areas. And we've seen nearly $10 billion invested in those areas, and over 80,000 different activities USDA sponsored in StrikeForce areas. So we know it works

MARTIN: To that end, could you give me - can you kind of help me see it a little bit better. Can you give me a picture of how you think this makes things better for people trying to bring the resources that do exist to bear on the problems that are there?

VILSACK: Let me give you an example. So the Highlands in southeast Kentucky has a revolving loan fund, which is designed to help small business start. USDA could come in with additional resources to increase that loan fund or can come in with a loan guarantee that can supplement that loan fund or make it easier for that company to get credit. Now the company gets credit, but they can't find skilled workers.

We contact the Department of Labor and say, look, are there apprenticeship programs, are there worker training programs that would help returning veterans in this area, for example, be able to be employed by this small business to get this business up and going. It's a coordinated effort to try to address the needs of businesses, the needs of communities in a much more comprehensive way than just simply USDA taking a grant in one community and the Department of Transportation having a grant in some completely different community where they don't leverage each other, and they don't, basically, amplify each other.

MARTIN: Why don't the programs work this way now anyway?

VILSACK: I can't speak to previous administrations as to why it didn't work or hadn't been tried. But what I can say is the president and the vice president are very clear about the need for us in these constrained resource environment to work collaboratively and work together. And in the past, I think, perhaps, it was more difficult for Cabinet members to get along, to work with each other, to work through the bureaucracy. But the great thing about promise zones, the great thing about StrikeForce, it is all about breaking barriers down. It's about educating people how the system works and making sure that they're successful within the system. This is a different approach. I am just convinced it will work.

MARTIN: So you're one of the second termers.

VILSACK: Yes.

MARTIN: What made you decide to stay?

VILSACK: I've got the greatest job in America. An opportunity to help the 15 percent of America that lives in rural communities that provides most of the food that we consume, a good deal of the water that we rely on, most of the energy. Military families disproportionately come from rural areas and so the ability to try to respond to the persistently poor areas in rural America, the ability to work with farmers who provide us so much freedom, the ability to work with people that really cared deeply about their community and their families and their country, it's just a great job.

And we have so many opportunities within USDA to make a difference because of the broad portfolio. It's not just about farmers. It's about rural development, it's about land-grant universities, it's about food safety, it's about the forests. It's a wonderful, tremendous department and we've done amazing work in the last four years. And I just want to make sure that the work that we do gets institutionalized and cemented as we culturally transform this agency into a 21st century government agency.

MARTIN: I'm just wondering how cemented as a metaphor kind of works with the agriculture department, but that's OK. We can go at that. I was hoping for more of a rural metaphor. Anyway, final...

VILSACK: Well, let me put it this way - we'd like to see this programs rooted.

MARTIN: Rooted. There you go. Thank you. I thought that made more sense. Sorry. Not to edit you. Before we let you go, what did you learn in the first term that you're going to bring to bear in the second?

VILSACK: The need to do a better job of educating people about precisely what have done and what we are doing. So for example, it may surprise people that the Department of Agriculture has been involved in over 3,800 water projects that's provided better and cleaner water for millions of America's who live in rural committees. It may surprise folks to hear that our ag exports have increased to record levels in the last 4 or 5 years. The ability to communicate the results as well as the programs so that people understand that these programs are out there, that they're working, that they're making a difference in people's lives and they're helping to improve the situation in rural America.

MARTIN: Tom Vilsack is the secretary of agriculture for the United States. He joined us from his office in Washington, D.C. Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for speaking with us. I hope we'll speak again.

VILSACK: All right, thank you.

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