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Obama makes pitch for 'Promise Zones' to boost depressed areas

President Barack Obama announced at the White House Thursday the first five of 20 “Promise Zones,” distressed areas located in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Southeastern Kentucky, and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, that will get tax breaks and federal aid.

He said there are communities across America “where for too many young people, it feels like their future only extends to the next street corner or the outskirts of town; too many communities where no matter how hard you work, your destiny feels like it has already been determined  before you took that first step.”

The president’s White House statement was part a renewed emphasis from Obama in the past few weeks on poverty and economic opportunity, a theme he promised that he’d continue to discuss in his State of the Union speech in two weeks.

Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

President Barack Obama pauses while speaking about poverty during an event in the East Room of the White House's private dining room January 9, 2014 in Washington, DC.

He said it is not just city neighborhoods but suburban and rural places as well that have fallen into economic distress.

“A child’s course in life should not 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,” he said.

Obama said the issue of helping distressed communities wasn’t a partisan one and he gave a special mention to Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, a potential 2016 presidential contender, “who’s here today,” Obama told the audience in the East Room of the White House.

"I don’t care whether the ideas are Democrat or Republican; I do care that they work. I do care that they are subject to evaluation and we can see if we are using tax dollars in a certain way, if we’re starting a certain program, I want to make sure” that residents are benefiting from the tax break or program, he said.  

Obama made the event personal by comparing his early life to that of one of the students in attendance, Hunter College sophomore Roger Brown, who had overcome poverty to be the first in his family to attend college. “If you want to know why I care about this stuff so much, it’s because I’m not that different from Roger. There was a period of time in my life where I was goofing off; I was raised by a single mom; I didn’t know my dad. The only difference between me and Roger was my environment was more forgiving than his.”

Obama’s statement Thursday was a return to a proposal he first made nearly a year ago in his 2013 State of the Union address in which he said his administration would “partner with 20 of the hardest-hit towns in America to get these communities back on their feet.” He said that his administration would “work with local leaders to target resources at public safety, and education, and housing” and “give new tax credits to businesses that hire and invest.”

Obama’s Promise Zones proposal bears some similarity to Paul’s Economic Freedom Zones Act which the Kentucky Republican introduced in the Senate last month.

Exiting the White House event, Paul told reporters, "I am supportive of the president’s ideas… What he said was uplifting and encouraging." But he added, "We need to do something more dramatic" than Obama's proposed incentives for economically distressed areas.

Paul’s bill would create tax breaks for residents and businesses in areas that have 1.5 times the national unemployment rate, or where at least 30 percent of the residents have incomes below the national poverty level.

Paul’s bill would cut the income tax rate to 5 percent for individuals, families, and small businesses, would trim the payroll tax rate, and would suspend the capital gains tax.

Paul’s proposal is similar to one made 25 years by then Rep. Jack Kemp, R- N.Y., who later became Housing secretary under President George H.W. Bush.

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