Last week, I visited Pine Mountain State Park in southeastern Kentucky, along with Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear and Congressman Hal Rogers, to announce the expansion of USDA’s StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity initiative into three new Appalachian states—Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia—and one state in the Delta region, Louisiana.
I believe that USDA and its partners have the tools to expand opportunity and better serve those living in persistent poverty in rural America. Our StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity initiative, which helped to inform President Obama's recently-announced Promise Zones, is about doing just that—rallying available tools and technical assistance and targeting these resources to the areas where they are needed most.
Through StrikeForce, we’ve partnered with more than 400 community organizations, businesses, foundations, universities and other groups to support 80,300 projects and ushered more than $9.7 billion in investments into rural America. Expanding StrikeForce support to these four additional states will help leverage USDA resources with the unique expertise of community leaders, business, foundations and other groups working in rural Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee and West Virginia.
President Obama has also recognized the unique challenges of rural poverty with his new Promise Zone initiative. For example, in addition to receiving StrikeForce support, the Kentucky Highlands in southeastern Kentucky has also been targeted as a Promise Zone area. Promise Zones are part of the President’s plan to create a better bargain for the middle-class by partnering with local communities, faith-based organizations, foundations, and businesses to create jobs, increase economic security, expand educational opportunities, increase access to quality, affordable housing, and improve public safety.
The Kentucky Highlands region is undergoing a period of structural economic change that is indicative of a trend across rural Appalachia. Changes in basic industries have directly impacted families in the rural Highlands region, leading to an unemployment rate higher than the national average. The Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation is spearheading Promise Zone strategies in the region and has developed a layered and collaborative approach to drive sustainable economic and community development in the region.
In addition to the rural Promise Zone in eastern Kentucky, President Obama also announced a tribal Promise Zone in the Choctaw Nation located in rural southeastern Oklahoma. The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma has the country’s third largest tribal population and, like many tribes across the US, has struggled with persistent poverty and crime rates that far exceed the national average. Despite these challenges, Choctaw Nation has created a strong base for economic revitalization. The Promise Zone designation will catalyze the creation of a formal planning committee – Revitalizing Our Communities Commission of Southeastern Oklahoma (ROCC) – that will drive further public, private, and philanthropic investment into essential community infrastructure. Read more about efforts to combat poverty in southeastern Kentucky, the Choctaw Nation, and three additional promise zones.
Investing in struggling communities is an important part of the President’s plan to restore the basic bargain at the heart of the American story – that everyone should have a fair chance at success. And that, no matter who you are or where you’re from, if you’re willing to work hard, you should be able to find a good job and support a family.