White House Picks Choctaw Nation To Fight Poverty In Oklahoma

Jan 9, 2014

Fifty years after President Lyndon Johnson declared his "War on Poverty," President Obama issued his own plan to combat poverty Thursday with the nation's first five "Promise Zones."

All "Promise Zones" will receive a competitive advantage when applying for federal grants, on-site support from federal officials, and, pending congressional approval, tax incentives for businesses hiring and investing in the community.

The Obama administration plans to select a total of 20 communities over the next three years, beginning with chronically impoverished areas in Los Angeles, San Antonio, southeastern Kentucky, Philadelphia, and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

"We will help them succeed not with a handout but as partners with them every step of the way," Obama told reporters at a press conference.

The Choctaw Nation first learned of the designation on Tuesday in a phone call from the White House, according to John Jackson, the tribe's executive director of grants and program development, who helped submit the tribe's application for the program.

Their "Promise Zone" includes a mix of tribal land and property owned by local municipalities and private citizens. Jackson describes the area as "extremely rural," with an average poverty rate of about 22.6 percent — more than seven percentage points higher than the national average.

"There's extreme isolationism. There's an abundance of social issues that need to be addressed," Jackson says.

The tribe plans to focus on improving early education and job training programs, investing in local water and sewer infrastructure, and encouraging small business development, specifically among farmers, ranchers and women. The benefits would directly impact both Choctaw Nation citizens and non-tribal members living in the southeastern Oklahoma community.

"We do not see ourselves as a segregated group. We're intertwined and intermeshed [with the local community]," explains Jackson, who adds the tribe will work with local community groups on the various initiatives.

No checks from the federal government have been cut yet, according to Jackson. And it's not clear when they will be. The "Promise Zones" will still have to apply for existing federal grants to receive financial support.

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