YPI’s work in the zone is centered around L.A.’s Promise Neighborhood grant, the Obama Administration’s signature education initiative. It's loosely based on the Harlem Children’s Zone, the highly touted experimental charter school initiative featured in the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman. Since 2010, YPI’s Promise Neighborhood has received $30 million from the federal government to expand a continuum of “cradle-to-college” social services, which means parenting classes, after-school and summer programs, healthcare and nutrition support, dropout-prevention programs, college-prep classes, financial-literacy courses, and so on. Additional grants from DOJ and HUD—for $1 million and $500,000, respectively—have enabled YPI to expand its community offerings into public safety and affordable housing. And while the Promise Zone designation itself does not come with funding, city officials project it could bring in as much as $500 million in additional federal funding to expand poverty initiatives in the zone.
“It’s about housing, health, economic development, public safety, education,” Slingerland says. “Everything you can think of that relates to how you transform a community, how you fight poverty, how you improve education—it's all wrapped into the L.A. Promise Zone strategy."
But critics of L.A.’s Promise Zone warn that the concentration of federal funding in the zone’s five Central L.A. neighborhoods—Pico-Union, Westlake, Koreatown, East Hollywood, and Hollywood—could drain public and private resources from other, arguably needier, parts of the city, particularly in South L.A. While the poverty rate averages 35 percent across the Promise Zone, some designated neighborhoods have experienced substantial private development over the past decade, and have avoided the structural economic problems that have plagued other parts of the city.
Even Obama’s allies in California have chafed at the program’s design. Following the president’s announcement this month, California Democratic Representatives Maxine Waters, Karen Bass, and Janice Hahn, whose districts include some of L.A.’s most perennially distressed neighborhoods, all demanded to know why South L.A. had been left out of the city’s Promise Zone area. “When I heard President Obama’s speech about how these promise neighborhoods would help poor children, all I could think about was Watts—it wasn’t even the running,” said Hahn, who turned down an invitation to attend the Promise Zone announcement. “Clearly it just highlighted that sometimes those that already have get more, and those that don't have anything get less.”
Slingerland suggests that the preexisting economic growth in L.A.’s Promise Zone neighborhoods may be why the administration found the project attractive. In the absence tax incentives or a stronger economic development policy—both of which seem unlikely in the current political climate— the initiative is focused on connecting poor people to opportunities that already exist in their neighborhoods. “What I think made us competitive is that you have this unique combination of great need, high poverty, and economic opportunity,” he said. “These are the best places to invest resources for the highest likelihood of success."