WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has picked the Choctaw Nation as one of the first five organizations to test a new anti-poverty program aimed at marshaling an array of resources to improve life in chronically poor areas.
Based in Durant, the tribe will create a Promise Zone in an economically challenged area in southeastern Oklahoma and use community groups, businesses and schools to focus on specific education and economic development goals.
President Barack Obama, who first announced the initiative in his State of the Union address last year, is expected to hold an event Thursday about its launch. According to senior administration officials, the other four sites are in San Antonio, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and southeastern Kentucky.
The federal government has tried a number of ways over decades to revitalize distressed areas, and many of those previous efforts focused on a particular strategy. Obama's zones are meant to adopt a communitywide approach to improve education, housing and public safety.
The president wants ultimately to test 20 Promise Zones, and he's announcing the first five on the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson declaring war on poverty.
A federal boost
The designation is expected to give the communities priority for grants, on-site help from federal officials and — if Congress approves — business tax breaks for hiring employees.
Choctaw Nation Chief Gregory E. Pyle said the tribe was “blessed to work with many regional, county, municipal, school, and university partners who, along with the Choctaw Nation, believe that great things can occur to lift everyone in Southeastern Oklahoma when we work together.
“This designation will assist ongoing efforts to emphasize small business development and bring economic opportunity to the high-need communities. I am confident that access to the technical assistance and resources offered by the Promise Zone designation will result in better lifestyles for people living and working within the Choctaw Nation.”
Tribal spokeswoman Judy Allen said the tribe's proposed zone includes several Census tracts in Atoka, Bryan, Coal, Choctaw, Haskell, Latimer, Le Flore, McCurtain, Pittsburg and Pushmataha counties.
The zone has a poverty rate of 22.6 percent, seven points above the national average, and its median income of $33,500 is well below the national average of $50,000. It has the highest rate of violent crime in the state, and one in five residents has less than a high school education, according to the tribe.