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Obama's Promise Neighborhoods Initiative

Can the new policy bridge the achievement gap in urban communities?


Cambridge, MA--February 17, 2010--President Barack Obama has pledged to support urban America through policy initiatives, and has created a White House Office of Urban Affairs which reports directly to the President. He plans to implement the Promise Neighborhoods Initiative, which will be patterned after the Harlem Children's Zone, HCZ. In recent years, a lack of federal resources (mass transit, social service, public works, education, job training) designed to help disadvantaged individuals gain financial security have aggravated problems in inner-city neighborhoods. An article in City & Community raises important issues about the execution of the new initiative in light of recent evidence.

The HCZ is a ninety-seven block laboratory in central Harlem that combines two reform-oriented and public charter schools with a web of community services designed to help children from birth to college graduation. The program is meant to provide a supportive and positive social environment outside the schools and create a community partnership fit to survive ups and downs in the urban community. The charter schools have effectively reversed the black-white achievement gap in math (HCZ students outperform the typical white student in New York City) and significantly reduced it in English Language Arts.

Sociologist William Julius Wilson remarks, "The HCZ public charter schools have been incredibly successful. However, recent rigorous research on the successful public charter schools in New York and Boston reveal that it is possible to attain similar results in erasing or significantly reducing the black/white achievement gap independent of community investments."

Wilson states that additional evidence will be needed on the impact of the community investments not only on educational outcomes, but also on other outcomes ranging from delinquency and gangs to teen pregnancy and mental and physical health. And a research team headed by the Harvard economist Roland Fryer will soon conduct a comprehensive study of the HCZ to measure the long-term affects of such community investments.

The Obama Administration has dedicated ten million dollars to 2010 fiscal planning for the proposed Promise Neighborhoods in twenty cities, but more funding may be needed from philanthropy organizations and businesses.


This study is published in the March 2010 issue of City & Community. Media wishing to receive a PDF of this article may contact

To view the abstract for this article please visit

William Julius Wilson, Ph.D. is Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard University. He is a recipient of the 1998 National Medal of Science, the highest scientific honor in the United States, and served as Past President of the American Sociological Association. His publications include award winning and bestselling books, The Declining Significance of Race (1980), The Truly Disadvantaged (1987), When Work Disappears (1996), The Bridge over the Racial Divide (1999), There Goes the Neighborhood (2006), and More than Just Race (2009). He can be reached for questions at

City & Community (C&C) aims to advance urban sociological theory, promote the highest quality empirical research on communities and urban social life, and encourage sociological perspectives on urban policy. It welcomes contributions that employ quantitative and qualitative methods as well as comparative and historical approaches. The journal encourages manuscripts exploring the interface of global and local issues, locally-embedded social interaction and community life, urban culture and the meaning of place, and sociological approaches to urban political economy. The journal also seeks articles on urban spatial arrangements, social aspects of local natural and built environments, urban and rural inequalities, virtual communities, and other topics germane to urban life and communities that will advance general sociological theory.

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