The Washington Post Sunday

We won’t allow forgotten Americans to be left behind

- BY BEN CARSON The writer is the U.S. secretary of housing and urban developmen­t.

The nation’s unemployme­nt rate is at a 49-year low, wages are on the rise, and last year, the official poverty rate fell from 12.7 percent to 12.3 percent, with even larger decreases and record lows for Hispanic Americans and African Americans. While all these indicators are great news, not everyone is benefiting from the improved economy.

Investment in many places in this country has lagged for generation­s. A mere 20 counties accounted for half the national increase in businesses from 2010 to 2014. Meanwhile, small counties (fewer than 100,000 residents) accounted for only 9 percent of all job growth between 2010 and 2014. Small wonder that frustratio­n is running high among those who feel they have been left behind.

During his inaugural address, President Trump declared that “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.” It is critical that we deliver on this promise and ensure the gains of the past two years reach every American.

Last December, Republican­s passed the Tax Cut and Jobs Act, which included a powerful new incentive promoting private investment in distressed communitie­s designated as opportunit­y zones. Building on this success, the president establishe­d the White House Opportunit­y and Revitaliza­tion Council this past week. I am very proud to chair this council, which consists of members across 13 agencies whose mission it is to jump-start the developmen­t of distressed urban and rural communitie­s by streamlini­ng, coordinati­ng and targeting public revitaliza­tion programs.

Opportunit­y zones are home to approximat­ely 35 million Americans. It is estimated that the opportunit­y-zone designatio­n could attract $100 billion in private investment in these areas, which would go a long way to spurring economic developmen­t and creating jobs. This kind of medicine is precisely what any doctor would prescribe to heal communitie­s where the average poverty rate is 32 percent and where the unemployme­nt rate is nearly twice the national average.

In addition to this private investment incentive, Congress last year appropriat­ed nearly $20 billion in grants to state and local government­s for economic developmen­t, entreprene­urship, safe communitie­s, education and workforce developmen­t. Despite this investment of public dollars, 52 million Americans still live in distressed communitie­s. Federal investment­s like these are often uncoordina­ted, scattered and unfocused, leading to varying results. This lack of coordinati­on and targeting contribute­s to waste, as well as widely dispersed and ineffectiv­e benefits. The White House Opportunit­y and Revitaliza­tion Council is ready to consider more than 150 actions to better target, streamline and coordinate these federal programs.

Many of the communitie­s located in opportunit­y zones are the same that the Department of Housing and Urban Developmen­t already serves. For example, there are approximat­ely 380,000 publichous­ing units and approximat­ely 340,000 units in the Project-Based Rental Assistance program within opportunit­y zones. Many local public-housing agencies are struggling to maintain aging units that are in desperate need of capital repairs. In fact, HUD’s budget cannot begin to keep pace with the growing capital needs of public housing.

To confront this imbalance, HUD continues to use a powerful tool to leverage billions of dollars in capital investment for affordable housing, and opportunit­y zones will allow it to access even more. To date, HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstrat­ion program has preserved about 100,000 units of affordable housing, offering newly built or renovated homes to 100,000 families. Nearly a third of these homes are located in opportunit­y zones.

These are still early days for the work of the council and opportunit­y zones, but the groundwork has been laid. The seeds the president has planted are growing, and the promise they hold will improve places long forgotten and the lives of those who call them home.

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