In the years immediately following the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the federal government passed bold civil rights and anti-poverty legislation to address critical issues facing the nation. Among this legislation was the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act, which launched the War on Poverty, including programs like Head Start and food stamps, and other efforts to address poverty and its affects. During the administration of former president Lyndon B. Johnson, Congress authorized about $2 billion annually to fight poverty.

Today, 50 years later, the Head Start and food stamp (now Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) programs are being deeply cut. Twenty -six percent of black people live below the poverty level and black unemployment is still twice as high as that of whites, just as it was in 1963. According to University of Michigan economics professor Shelton Danziger, “Americans have allowed poverty to fall off the national agenda.”

Brian Smedley, vice president and director of the Health Policy Institute at the D.C.-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, sees hope for a federal response in the Obama administration’s new Promise Zones initiative. Smedley calls Promise Zones “the biggest, most promising anti-poverty strategy” in decades. The Joint Center is working with the Obama administration to build awareness about the effort.

Promise Zones are intended to coordinate and focus community-based programs of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Department of Education (DOE), the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Agriculture (DOA), on high-poverty communities across the country.  Among the programs to be included, for example, are HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods, which helps neighborhoods with distressed public housing implement plans for transformation; DOE’s Promise Neighborhoods inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone and intended to improve educational opportunities and life chances for children in high poverty neighborhoods; and the Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Initiative,  which works with high crime neighborhoods to control and prevent violent crime, drug abuse and gang activity.  The goal of Promise Zones is to accelerate these programs by using the administration’s new “place-based” approach of integrating and aligning the resources of several federal agencies in areas of concentrated poverty. According to HUD, since 2009, the administration has invested more than $350 million in 100 of the nation’s persistent pockets of poverty.

Why is Smedley so hopeful about Promise Zones?

“Promise Zones gets the prescription right,” he says. “Past civil rights efforts such as the War on Poverty focused on helping individuals, but did not address the structural barriers to opportunity in neighborhoods where poor people of color live,” such as segregated and poor quality housing, the lack of capital and economic opportunity, inadequate schools, and transportation.

Previous HUD programs, such as Empowerment Zones, have certainly used the concept of targeting specific places to spur investment and revitalization. However, Smedley believes that the Promise Zones approach of cooperating across agencies to locate a range of federal programs in poor neighborhoods, can better attract business investment and help lessen poverty.

Smedley is also encouraged that the Promise Zones strategy is being implemented as researchers, including the Joint Center, are looking more seriously at the intersection between “place,” health and economic justice.

The Joint Center held its third annual National Health Equity Conference on October 2, in Washington, D.C., which was attended by researchers, community development leaders, policy makers and practitioners from across the country. The purpose of the conference was to discuss and disseminate strategies for addressing  the relationship between health and economic inequities. Smedley points to “a large body of research which shows that the places where people live have a direct impact on their health status.” He explains that for many people of color, poor socio-economic status also means poor health. He believes that Promise Zones provide an opportunity to learn more about how stimulating economic activity in targeted neighborhoods can improve resident’s health.

Other policy analysts aren’t so certain about the Promise Zone’s placed-based recipe. Phil Tegeler, executive director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, says programs, such as Promise Neighborhoods, that will make up the Promise Zones are worthy efforts. However, he is concerned that they are too focused on keeping the poor in distressed communities.

Poor families “need to have the choice to move to higher income neighborhoods,” said Tegeler, who believes that HUD should make more funding available for programs that expand housing choice outside of areas of extreme poverty. This is a particularly note worthy critique given  research which shows the harmful effects on children of growing up in poverty-stricken neighborhoods

Over the next four years, the Obama administration will designate 20 high poverty communities as Promise Zones. These communities will not receive direct funding, but will benefit from tax incentives (if enacted by Congress) to encourage private business investment, intensive assistance from federal agencies to help them make the best use of existing federal funding, and priority access to federal investments made under the administration’s placed–based approach.

Of course there are no “promises” with the Promise Zones strategy. There are many factors that could get in the way of success. Over the past two decades, private foundations have spent significant resources investing in place-based initiatives and produced plenty of evidence that much can go wrong. For example, any effort to alleviate entrenched poverty requires a long time horizon, and few funders — public, private or philanthropic — have the resources or patience to stick with these initiatives if they don’t show early positive results. Multi-dimensional, place-based projects are expensive and often funders don’t provide adequate resources. Promise Zones will not receive direct funding and the resources for which they can apply appear limited, given what has been spent in these areas so far.The War on Poverty spent billions in 1960’s dollars and was still considered under-funded by some.

In addition, tax incentives, designed to attract private businesses to the zones, still need to be approved by Congress. As things stand now between Congress and the administration, that could be a long shot. Also, many communities that have experienced years of disinvestment do not have the infrastructure to successfully implement and sustain a complex revitalization effort without intense, continuous capacity development — which of course means time and resources. Finally, these projects are getting underway in a very fragile economy and any downturn, national or local, could hamper the best intentions.

Despite the cautions and questions, it’s encouraging to see the Obama administration at least attempting to move the federal government to address poverty and inequality. Is it bold or well funded enough? Of course not, but in this economic and political environment “bold” is highly unlikely. Still, maybe we can learn something from this limited Promise Zones initiative to help move the needle in the fight against inequality. In this case, I’d like to see America prove Professor Danziger wrong.