In his visits last week to the poorest areas of this country, President Clinton encountered the hearts and souls of those living in poverty -- their struggles, their hopes and their dreams for their children. This visit was not only about past failures but about expanded opportunities, new possibilities and a renewed future for the poor in our cities, rural areas and Indian reservations. The president highlighted rural poverty in Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta, distress in our older, small and medium-sized manufacturing cities like East St. Louis, and struggles even in our large successful cities like Los Angeles and fast growing cities like Phoenix.

The most poignant moment of this tour was the president's visit with Geraldine Blue-Bird at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Pine Ridge is the poorest census tract in the nation and the home of the Oglala Sioux. Geraldine Blue-Bird lives with 27 relatives in a tiny, run-down military surplus home and an adjoining trailer. In 1999, a descendent of the first Americans, Geraldine cannot even afford to buy her children the shoes they need to go to school.

The president's trip was a tremendous success for raising national awareness that despite the economic boom, there are many places left far behind. But the trip says much more.

The first message is that the areas visited by the president are examples of potentially new economic markets that can be developed to continue to fuel this nation's economic engine. The two essential elements to sustain economic life -- the economic equivalent of air and water -- are new workers and new consumer markets. The workers whom business so desperately needs for tomorrow are the unemployed of today. And the new consumer markets are the unused purchasing power of our untapped markets right here in the United States. A recent Department of Housing and Urban Development report estimates that there is $330 billion in potential purchasing power in our inner-city communities. In the nation as a whole, there is 25 percent more money earned than spent in our inner cities. In New York, it is 31 percent; in Washington, D.C., it is 28 percent.

But there is another message that goes beyond the economics: that we have a moral obligation to bring those places left behind into the American success story. It is an issue of national definition and of social justice. The premise of this nation -- unlike any other -- was not based on common race or religion but on promise and principle. And the premise simply put is "opportunity for all." Not guaranteed outcomes, but an equal playing field of opportunity.

To fulfill the nation's promise, we must work to provide the basic platform for an individual to build on: decent housing, health care, a public education system that offers everyone everywhere the skills to compete and access to capital. It is our spirit of community that has made this nation strong: our belief that we are all interconnected and interrelated. The Native American uses the symbol of the circle, without beginning and without end, one inextricably linked to the other. It's either shared success or shared failure.

The president's commitment to addressing this challenge incorporates the lessons of the past. Government cannot fill the void left by the private sector's absence. Past efforts tried a government substitute for a private sector economy -- an "entitlement economy" -- and we must do better. At the same time, it cannot be left to the free market, because, by definition, the private sector has failed in these places.

The intelligent synthesis is that government take action to facilitate and incentivize the private sector to invest in poorer communities and help them overcome competitive economic disadvantages.

The president's New Markets Initiative will do this by providing tax benefits, loans and capital, which will foster new private-sector jobs and economic activity. It is not our first effort. This builds on the empowerment efforts advanced for six years by Vice President Gore, a bipartisan policy that combines the best of Democratic and Republican approaches.

This is a unique moment in history because of a confluence of several factors. First, we have an exceptionally strong economy that provides the fuel for continued growth. Second, the federal government has new credibility and has eliminated the deficit, which all but made progressive government an impossibility. Third, with new technologies, businesses are more mobile than ever, and thus a remote area today is more proximate to economic potential. A fiber-optic cable can go where no road or rail ever has.

If we don't act now, then when?

The writer is secretary of housing and urban development.