As a candidate, Obama promised to bring this transformative program to 20 cities around the country. That didn't pan out, but is the president to blame?

As a candidate, President Barack Obama offered a transformative plan for our inner cities. In a 2007 speech, he argued that poverty couldn't be solved with Great Society programs like food stamps and welfare. If we want to end poverty, he said, we need to "heal that entire community."

In practical terms, Obama said, that meant trying to replicate the Harlem Children's Zone in 20 cities across the country.

The Zone, which first began as a one-block pilot program in the 1990s, was the brainchild of Geoffrey Canada, an obsessively energetic anti-poverty activist who grew up in the Bronx. Now spread over 90 blocks in Harlem, it takes an intensive and comprehensive approach to child development. At its most basic, the idea is to support children in the neighborhood from the minute they're born until they leave for college. That means parenting classes, intensive kindergartens, high-quality schools called Promise Academies with robust after-school programs, even help with college applications.

In Harlem, it's been a wild success. In 2009, every third grader at the HCZ's Promise Academy tested at or above their grade level in math, outperforming their peers in the city and throughout the state. Over 84 percent of Promise Academy II students scored at or above grade level in city-mandated English tests, topping the average test scores among all other black students in New York City. And in 2008, 93 percent of Promise Academy High ninth graders passed the statewide Algebra Regents exam.

Obama's plan — to translate the success of the Zone to cities around the country — was nothing short of revolutionary. As Paul Tough writes in his latest New York Times Magazine piece, it was "a blueprint for a more coordinated, more effective, more responsive way to direct the often haphazard flow of government money into urban neighborhoods devastated by the multiple effects of concentrated poverty."

In his speech, Obama pledged to dedicate "a few billion dollars a year" to this program. But that vision, obviously, didn't pan out. Though his administration has designated a handful of "promise neighborhoods," the federal government only spent about $40 million on them over three years. Community groups have seen about another $60 million in grants. 

As Tough writes: 

A few other initiatives have focused on concentrated urban poverty, but they are mostly small and scattered. Instead, the antipoverty path that Obama has pursued looks more like a traditional Great Society Democratic approach: his administration has spent billions of dollars on direct aid to poor people, mostly working-poor families.

The reason for this shift was, in a large part, the economic recession. It's not just that a massive anti-poverty program would have been politically unpalatable. Those in extreme poverty are more likely to spend extra money immediately, pumping it back into the GDP. A nation-wide zone program, in contrast, would take years of investment before it paid off. 

The limits to Obama's vision are interesting in their own right. But perhaps a better question is this: why are so many cities waiting on federal funds to give this program a try? The Harlem Children's Zone is widely heralded as one of the most successful anti-poverty programs in the county, an honor it managed to achieve without the help of federal money.

In fact, it started with a budget of just $6 million (slated to grow to $46 million over ten years). Additionally, much of the funding was private - about a third of the Zone's money comes directly from board members. The rest comes from foundations, private donors and government. 

But the Zone has always had exceptional opportunities to leverage money. When he was first starting out, Canada brought in a college friend Stan Druckenmiller, who happens to be one of the country's most successful hedge-fund managers ever. When Druckenmiller joined Canada, he recruited his friends to the board. This meant two things - for one, Canada had access to some of the city's wealthiest philanthropists. 

And according to The New York Times Magazine Canada's board was uniquely interested in building a non-profit that functioned more like a business. Canada spent much of his early investment developing a business plan, creating a management structure, buying new technology and developing an evaluation process. This just isn't always possible in a funding world obsessed with getting as much money as possible in the hands of those who need it (funders like to brag about low overhead).

Canada also had the advantage of an exceptionally supportive local government. Mayor Michael Bloomberg loves applying the laws of business to government, and he is famously supportive of charter schools. Early on, Canada told The New York Times, he identified Harlem's public schools as a major roadblock to success. "When I first came here in the early 1980s, we felt that District 3 ran a system almost of apartheid," he said.

Rather than wrangling with superintendents though, Canada was able to step right over them. He teamed with former Schools Chancellor Joel Klein (an early advocate) to turn many of the neighborhood's public schools into charter schools that he could control. Because of this, he was able to pay teachers more, and to fire those who don't live up to his high standards.

And then, there's Canada himself, a singularly successful and engaging champion for his cause. Canada has been featured on 60 Minutes, Good Morning America, even This American Life. Oprah Winfrey calls Canada "an angel from God." This national exposure has given him the ears and support of some of the most powerful politicians and philanthropists in the country. A small non-profit toiling in Buffalo's inner city just can't quite muster the same political will, no matter how committed he is.

A blogger in Durham explains why his city failed to live up to the Canada model thusly:  

To begin, this is not Harlem. The dynamics of Harlem are different. Harlem is a borough with both a historical and cultural identity of its own. People have rallied in support of Canada due to Harlem’s position as the hub of African American life and culture. Harlem is more than a section of a city; it is the community that epitomizes the emergence of African Americans as intellectuals with creative gifts. 

Beyond that, there is no Canada heading the charge of Durham’s children zone. The structure of Durham’s version is limited by the influence of local government and the barriers created when decisions are made void of a clear understanding of what the community needs and feels.  

Perhaps that's the point - more than money or plans, it was Canada that made the difference. For this model to work in other cities, it would need a similarly passionate, visionary leader.

Photo credit: Britain's Prince Harry and Prince Seeiso of Lesotho speak to students during a tour of the Harlem Children's Zone school in the Harlem region of New York. (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

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