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Obama targets poverty in San Antonio, Philadelphia and other U.S. 'zones'

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the White House in Washington November 28, 2012. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the White House in Washington November 28, 2012. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama is set to speak on Thursday about how he will target job creation, housing, law enforcement and education in the poorest U.S. communities, part of his pledge to narrow the gap between rich and poor in America.

Obama signaled last month that he plans a new focus this year on income inequality, which he called "the defining challenge of our time", pushing to raise the minimum wage and find new ways to help poor children break out of the cycle of poverty.

As part of this effort, Obama will create "promise zones" in San Antonio, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, southeastern Kentucky, and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, the White House said on Wednesday.

The announcement came on the 50th anniversary of a pledge by former President Lyndon Johnson to wage a "war on poverty" which led to government programs like Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and Head Start preschool education programs.

Since 1967, poverty rates have fallen from close to 26 percent to 16 percent, the White House said. In 2012, 49.7 million Americans lived in poverty, including 13.4 million children.

"In the richest nation on Earth, far too many children are still born into poverty, far too few have a fair shot to escape it, and Americans of all races and backgrounds experience wages and incomes that aren't rising," Obama said in a statement marking the anniversary of Johnson's pledge.

Obama will make his formal announcement about the "promise zones" at 2 p.m. EST (1900 GMT) on Thursday.

He first spoke about the plan in his 2013 State of the Union speech, almost a year ago, pledging to focus government funding with private-sector programs in 20 communities to create jobs, improve schools, beef up public safety, and create better housing.

The designation is designed to help communities navigate programs that already exist, said Megan Martin, a policy analyst at the Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington.

"A lot of what they're offering is in fact not funding - they're offering direct contact with the federal government, high-quality technical assistance, up-to-date tools and resources for sites to use," Martin said in an interview.

Obama's creation of a "promise zone" in Kentucky received praise from Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, who represents the state.

"I wrote a letter last year supporting this designation because this region has suffered enormous economic hardship over the last several years," McConnell said in a statement, citing job losses in the coal industry which he blamed on White House environmental policies.

The plan also called for tax incentives for businesses that invest in impoverished neighborhoods and hire local people, and is modeled after a program run by the city of San Antonio.

Obama has also said he will push to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, up from $7.25, an effort unlikely to succeed because of opposition from Republicans in Congress.

Democrats have taken up the cause ahead of the 2014 midterm elections. Polls show Americans view Republicans as less compassionate toward the poor.

Obama and Democrats have also pushed to extend an expiring program that provides benefits to people out of work -- something Republicans have resisted, arguing that the cost of extending the benefits should be offset with spending cuts.

But this week, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, both potential White House contenders, plan major events describing their ideas for addressing poverty.

(Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal and Susan Heavey; Editing by Doina Chiacu, Rosalind Russell and Jonathan Oatis)

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