Obama targets poverty in US 'promise zones'

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The headquarters for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma is in Durant, Oklahoma. (Photo by Rodger Mallison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images)
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By Roberta Rampton

(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."

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Johnson's pledge led to programs like Medicare, Medicaid, social security, food stamps, and Head Start preschool education programs.

Since 1967, poverty rates have fallen from close to 26 percent down to 16 percent, the White House said. In 2012, 49.7 million of 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 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 plan 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 because of the cost.

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 Susan Heavey; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Rosalind Russell)

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