KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Think about this - the U.S. Census says 46 million Americans live in poverty. Back in January, President Obama announced that a new program would target five areas across the country where poverty persists.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We call these communities Promise Zones. 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 dreams.
MCEVERS: The five promise zones are in Philadelphia, San Antonio, southeastern Kentucky, the Choctaw nation of Oklahoma and right here in Los Angeles. The idea is to basically carpet bomb urban neighborhoods and rural areas with programs, like afterschool classes, job-training, ESL, GED, parenting classes, computer training, infrastructure charter schools - all to turn these areas. It's our cover story today - tackling poverty in place.
MCEVERS: This week, we headed out to the Los Angeles Promise Zone, which covers parts of central LA - one of the densest parts of the city, with a mix of people of Latino, Korean, Thai, Armenian and African-American heritage. The decision to designate this part of LA as a promise zone has been controversial here. Why not pick other parts of LA, where poverty is more entrenched? We went to the Family Source Center to find out. It's run by the Youth Policy Institute. That's the main organization that's already gotten federal funding to tackle poverty. Now that it's in the promise zone, it stands to gain more.
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SERGIO MORALES: Good afternoon. Thank you for your patience.
MCEVERS: There's a long line outside. Dozens of people have been waiting for hours just to get a $6 to $10 discount on a monthly bus pass.
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MORALES: Please stand in line. You need to make sure that you have proof of income, proof of address and an ID.
MCEVERS: Sergio Morales helps runs the institute's community centers. He tells people waiting outside they'll eventually have to come inside and wait for their name to be called.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Carlos Sandoval.
MCEVERS: Morales says the bus pass program is a great way to access people in the zone. They come in for their pass, then sign up for things like tutoring or housing assistance or a baby massage class with a caseworker like this one.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Spanish spoken).
MCEVERS: Dixon Slingerland heads the Youth Policy Institute. We asked him to show us the zone and explain how the institute's work will change now that it's in the zone. He started by explaining how the center is situated in East Hollywood.
DIXON SLINGERLAND: Right at the corner of Santa Monica and Western in Hollywood - the real Hollywood. This is probably the busiest intersection in all of LA - bus traffic, foot traffic, car traffic. So we're really in the heart of things here.
MCEVERS: You say the real Hollywood. What do you mean?
SLINGERLAND: I mean the Hollywood where poverty rates reach 50 percent in the census tracts - where families are living together in very dense, high-poverty conditions and the schools are not achieving as well as they could. And there's a lot of challenges. Across the country, peopling think about Hollywood. They have a certain image. That's not this Hollywood.
MCEVERS: So we head out into the real Hollywood. Slingerland says the reason this neighborhood was chosen is that organizations like his already have secured lots of federal grants and shown they can use that money by actually helping people.
SLINGERLAND: And it's not just the money. It's more about the fact that you've already proven that you've got the right folks at the table. You know what you're doing. You're focuses on data. You've got the public sector partnering with you.
MCEVERS: So not just about money? It's like awarding the most likely to succeed.
SLINGERLAND: I suppose you could say that - yeah.
MCEVERS: So here's how the promise zone designation works, Slingerland says. A federal grant is announced for something like an art center. Slingerland's organization applies for it. Because it's in the zone, it will get preferential treatment. Since the designation, he says, his organization already has gotten two and a quarter million dollars for a fitness program, and they've applied for $50 million more. The hope is that other neighborhoods can replicate this one's success. Fifteen more Promise Zones across the U.S. are said to be designated over the next three years. Of course, Slingerland says, LA is different from the other promise zones.
SLINGERLAND: All five of us are going to look very different in terms of our strategies and approaches, but we're all getting at the same fundamental outcomes. We're all trying to combat poverty in our communities.
MCEVERS: So how did we get here? Who decided the place-based approach is the right one? It all goes back to the settlement houses - basically community centers with a wide range of services that federal government built in poor neighborhoods starting a century ago. Then came the now famous Harlem Children's Zone which targeted that part of New York City with programs from birth to graduation, says Margery Turner of the Urban Institute.
MARGERY TURNER: It focused very explicitly on children, and they didn't invent the intervention all at once. They plugged away at it over several decades.
MCEVERS: Since then, Turner says, the place-based thing has taken off.
TURNER: Indeed, we have been through lots of different promises, opportunities and zones.
MCEVERS: We asked Turner to explain why we should tackle poverty in place.
TURNER: The argument is that when people live in deeply poor, severely distressed neighborhoods, conditions in those neighborhoods really undermine people's chances of success. And if we don't tackle those conditions, other strategies we use that supplement income or provide educational opportunities or work opportunities - they're going to be less effective.
MCEVERS: Turner says there are other approaches to tackling poverty, like handing out cash to poor people in places like Mexico and New York City.
TURNER: The key, I think, is not to look for a single silver bullet. Persistent interracial poverty is a complicated problem. There are a lot of big forces that are perpetuating it. So cash benefits, certainly, are a really important part of a solution. For families in these severely distressed neighborhoods, that will be helpful. It's not enough.
MCEVERS: Turner says, for the more comprehensive place-based programs to be enough, the one thing they need is time.
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