IT'S NOT EVERY week that a U.S. president visits in succession the hollows of Kentucky, a distressed Midwest urban area, a hard-pressed Mississippi Delta town, a dirt-poor Indian reservation and a once riot-scarred West Coast inner city. But as the sun starts to set on his presidency, Bill Clinton is using his bully pulpit to tell America that the blessings of economic prosperity have not reached all parts of the country, and that more must be done. It was an important undertaking, and presidential time was well spent on it.
Mr. Clinton's odyssey could have followed a different geographical course and yet made the same point about the persistence of poverty during a time of plenty. The White House motorcade could have pulled into Benton Harbor, Mich., where the 1995 poverty rate was 64 percent, or driven to the Chicago public housing where children have been known to sit in feces, or stopped by any number of community shelters where the nation's 600,000 homeless spend the night.
At a moment of historic economic gains, the president still would have had little trouble finding communities stuck at the starting line as the nation's economy rambles ahead. But the ostensible purpose of the president's trip was to do more than simply call attention to the distress of communities left behind. The president also set out to showcase islands of poverty as untapped markets with potential for fueling growth and economic recovery.
With the "new markets initiative" tour now behind him, the acid test must be applied to the promises he made along the way. Will the new government tax credits, loan guarantees and other federal subsidies announced during president Clinton's four-day mission be enough to attract and sustain the kind of private investment necessary to allow impoverished regions to share in the nation's good fortunes?
Other presidents have put the national spotlight on the problems of America's hardest-hit. The poor are still with us. Having drawn attention once again to one of the nation's most intractable and challenging problems, Bill Clinton is positioned to move beyond his pledges and sympathetic hugs. The people he was with for four days and who he has now left behind can be forgiven for wondering if the president will stay with their case or move on to something else. They are not alone.