CEO and Founder of PolicyLink Angela Glover Blackwell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at a PolicyLink panel "Going Local: Place-Based Solutions to Combat Poverty" (Jeanne Kuang/Medill News Service)

CEO and Founder of PolicyLink Angela Glover Blackwell listens as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack discusses President Barack Obama’s Promise Zone initiative, which partners federal agencies and local governments to combat poverty. (Jeanne Kuang/Medill News Service)

WASHINGTON – If President Barack Obama’s recently announced Promise Zones initiative succeeds, five poverty-stricken neighborhoods across the country — urban and rural — will soon receive resources and volunteers to act on their plans for revitalization.

That was the topic of a panel discussion Tuesday, when top Obama administration officials spoke to research institute PolicyLink about the new across-the-board poverty-fighting initiative in local communities.

In contrast with past plans with “the federal government telling folks what they should be doing,” Cecilia Munoz, director of Obama’s Domestic Policy Council, said the Promise Zones program hands the reins over to local government and community-based  organizations to improve their neighborhoods.

The panelists’ remarks all addressed the theme of the Promise Zone program and of Obama’s focus on income inequality—that a person’s location should not determine his or her economic opportunities.

In January, five areas were announced as the first of 20 Promise Zones to be designated within the next three years. Parts of Los Angeles, San Antonio and  Philadelphia and also Southeastern Kentucky and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma will all get federal support and volunteers to help carry out  plans to revitalize neighborhoods through upgrades in  affordable housing, education, safety and employment opportunities.

These states all housed districts that were finalist for President Barack Obama’s Promise Zone contest. These are the 2011 and 2012 comparative results of their poverty rate, the percentage of citizens living below the poverty line. via (Jonathan Palmer/Medill News Service)

The program will require coordination among various federal agencies, including the departments of education, agriculture, housing and urban development and transportation.

“What we’re trying to do is create a whole which is greater than sum of its parts,” said Munoz.

For example, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, the Agriculture and Education Departments could partner to provide incentives for teachers to stay on the job in rural schools.

Munoz said, “This is not about creating and implementing a collection of different programs among different federal agencies. This is about a federal government working as an effective partner.”

In turn, Munoz said, local groups may become more proactive in creating their own plans for neighborhood revitalization.

The Promise Zones also have plans to link public, private and philanthropic organizations in communities.