Bill Clinton photo

Remarks on Empowerment Zones and Enterprise Communities

January 17, 1994

I want to thank Arland for reminding us all that we can make a difference in people's lives and that there are a lot of good people out there who are dying to make more of their lives if given the opportunity. It's so easy for us here to come here and talk in Government language about Government programs that never seem to reach to the human level and to the reality of what is actually at stake among the young people of this country. And he did that better than I think that I will be able to in following up. But for all of you who are here to talk about this today, if there was ever an argument for why we needed to find ways to give people and communities the capacity to develop themselves, I think Arland Smith made a better argument than any of the rest of us ever could. I thought when he said, "I couldn't believe I was here in Washington; I used to be a knucklehead," I thought he was going to say there were a lot of knuckleheads here, but he was delicate enough not to say that. [Laughter]

First, let me if I might, comment on the earthquake that struck Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley very early this morning. I have spoken with Governor Wilson and with Mayor Riordan by phone. I've assured them that we intend to do everything we possibly can to help the people of Los Angeles and southern California deal with the earthquake and its aftermath.

I've also spoken with James Lee Witt, the Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He is probably, as we meet here, on his way to California. Secretary Cisneros, I know, is going out later today. We may have other representatives of the Government there. We have done everything we can both to provide the resources and the backup we need. I believe that later today it will be possible for us to issue the appropriate Federal declaration for California. We're going to go out there anyway, and our people will be doing the necessary work to try to do that. FEMA has had a lot of challenges this year, what with the 500 year flood in the Middle West and the fires in southern California. But the good news is, I think they're well organized and ready to deal with this, and I have been very impressed with the work that's already been done since the early morning hours in southern California.

We do know that at least three people have lost their lives, that many people have lost their homes, that there's been a severe disruption of life there. There are at least three major freeways that are seriously damaged, and if you've been watching it on television you know that. So I ask the American people to remember the people of Los Angeles County in their thoughts and prayers today. It's going to be a very difficult few weeks for them as they try to come through the immediate dangers. And there are still some immediate dangers there and in the aftermath.

On this Martin Luther King Day, we honor our Nation's challenging and most eloquent voice for human rights and human potential, a person who gave his life to guarantee better opportunities for people like Arland Smith. When Martin Luther King died in April of 1968, I was living here as a senior at Georgetown, and I remember so clearly putting a big red cross on my car and driving it down into the burning areas of town to deliver supplies to people who had lost a lot of hope. It was a very troubling time for our country and, indeed, for the whole world.

And not long after that I had a chance to go to Eastern Europe and to Russia for the first time in my life, right after the hope of freedom had been extinguished in Czechoslovakia. Well, I just got back from that trip, as you know. And while the problems those people are facing are far from over and while their future is far from free of difficulty, if you could have been with me walking the streets of Prague, you would have seen the great cause for hope, a people who for decades were shackled to a Communist system with their personal freedoms and their personal ambitions held in check now really looking forward to a very different and broader and brighter future; to see a man like Vaclav Havel, a former prisoner under the Communist system, living his life the way Dr. King challenged the rest of us to live, rewarded by his people with the Presidency of his country. I say that because if you think about where we are now compared to where we were when Martin Luther King died there is a great deal to hope for around the world and here at home.

But I couldn't help thinking as I was going across the world trying to help other nations deal with their problems, that I was coming home to Martin Luther King Day, and the honest hard assessment that a lot of things that were obsessing and burdening this country 25 years ago when Martin Luther King died are just as bad today as they were then. A lot of things are better. A lot of things are better. There is more individual opportunity for people who are educated and who developed it. There is less overt prejudice. But there is more violence, less opportunity, and more destruction of family and community for the places that are really hard hit than there even was 25 years ago. And I think the only way we can honor Martin Luther King's memory is to be honest about that and to ask ourselves what we can do to rebuild the communities and families of this country and to give more young people like Arland Smith a chance to be what he is becoming.

For a long time, the Government really thought that if we just had a solution designed here in Washington that was properly funded, we could solve the problems of every community in the country. Well, we learned that that wasn't true. But we've also learned, after several years of neglect, that neglect is not a very good policy either, that somehow there needs to be a new partnership between Washington and the communities and the individuals of this country and that there needs to be a way of doing business in which we try to create the conditions in which people can seize opportunities for themselves. That's what this empowerment zone concept is all about and these enterprise communities are all about. The business leaders who are here today are here because we know that we cannot succeed in Government unless you are our partners. And we have stopped trying to tell everybody exactly how to do what needs to be done, but instead we have begun to create the conditions in which people can do what needs to be done at every level.

I want to thank all the members of our administration who are here who worked so hard on this project. I want to say a special word of thanks to the Members of Congress who are here without whom we could not have passed the whole empowerment zone concept. I tell you freely that it was not without controversy in the Congress. There were a lot of people who said, "Well, we're trying to bring down the deficit, and we just shouldn't do this. This might not work."

But when we looked at the history of what had happened to—[ inaudible]—community, when we see what happens when work disappears, when families are under stress, when a void is created into which gangs and guns and drugs move, we realized, I think, as a people here in Washington last year, that we had to do something to try to change the rules of the game, community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood.

We also know that we can't do it without help from the business community. So I say to you here on this Martin Luther King Day, America needs your help. The real reason Arland Smith's got a good story is that after he paid the price to go through the educational system and to change his own habits and the way he presented himself and his own aspirations for his own life, the only real reason he's got a story to tell is that he also has two jobs. And if there were no job at the end of the rainbow, then this man would be standing up here giving a very different speech: "Why did you all hold out false hopes? Why did you tell me to be a good student, to be a good citizen, to be a good father, to do all these things, and then there was nothing at the end of the effort for me?"

Our most urgent task is to restore to young people like Arland all across this country the conviction that if they do work hard, they will be rewarded, the absolute, unshakable belief that they can make their future better. And we cannot do that without a community-based effort and without a partnership with employers all across this country.

In Martin Luther King's last book, "Where Do We Go From Here," he said that community-based businesses, no matter how small, are vital because they are a strength among the weak though they are weak among the mighty. If we want people to live by the work ethic, we've got to give them work. It's as simple as that. We have advanced, from the beginning of this administration, a new approach, coordinated in partnership here in Washington between the private and public sector and also coordinated at the grassroots level, to focus on a community investment strategy which would empower people to determine their own future. That's what the empowerment zones and enterprise communities are all about, and that's what our efforts to strengthen the community investment act and to develop community development banks are all about. And that's what our effort to pass a crime bill that would put another 100,000 police officers on the streets in grass-roots communities are all about.

All these things are not about imposing Federal formulas on communities; they're about giving communities the right to define a future for themselves and the resources to succeed. That's what the strengthening of the Head Start is all about. That's why on April 15th, 15 million working families will get a tax cut because their incomes are modest and because we want them to succeed as workers and as parents. That's what the earned-income tax credit is all about.

This empowerment zone initiative, therefore, is a central part of a broadly coordinated strategy. With business people in mind, the plan seeks to make places more attractive for new investment so that people can—Arland Smith can fulfill their dreams. We built about $2.5 billion in tax incentives into this plan. They say if you hire a new worker in this zone, you'll get a tax break. If you retrain a worker who lives in this zone, you'll get a tax break. In other words, the plan rewards people for results, for reaching people in communities that presently are seeing disinvestment instead of new investment.

It's much better than welfare, and it recognizes that it doesn't make any economic sense for us to be trying to build new markets all around the world when we have huge, untapped, undeveloped markets right here at home: millions and millions and millions of potential consumers for American products and services who cannot be part of the American market because they, themselves, do not have the education, the training, the jobs, and the supports that they need. If we simply can apply our international economic policy to south central Los Angeles, Harlem, Milwaukee, Detroit, you name it, the Mississippi Delta, south Texas, we're going to do just fine in this country. We should see the American people who have the ability of this fine young man who just spoke as an enormous asset that we are not tapping. And we have no excuses now for not doing it, because we know better, and we know it. How many times did I give that speech during the NAFTA debate? The only way a rich country grows richer is to find more people who buy its products and services. In America we have millions of people who don't buy our products and services, because we have not invested in them and their potential and created the conditions in which they can succeed. So that is what this is all about.

Nobody in our strategy gets something for nothing. The rules for businesses that participate are the same as for the rules of communities. It tells everybody if you assume certain responsibilities, if you make certain investments, if you make certain commitments, there are rewards. And it gives you all, again I would say, the chance to develop the systems that work best community by community.

Now, I have given a lot of thought, having been a Governor and having tried to do this on a State level with mixed results, to what works and what doesn't. When I became Governor of my State for the second time in 1983, we had an unemployment rate 3 percent higher than the national average. And the Mississippi Delta was then and unfortunately still is the poorest part of America. But I could take you through towns in the eastern part of my State— Mr. Nash, the Under Secretary of Agriculture, and I went week after week, month after month, year after year into town after town after town. And we would go into a county and see 2 towns 10 miles from one another, the same income makeup, the same racial makeup, the same educational makeup, and one would have an unemployment rate 4 points lower than the other. One would have a school in which there was no white flight but instead coordinated, integrated, high-quality education. And it was always because of the leadership and the vision and the discipline and a common concern for the people who lived at the local level. They created empowerment zones without even knowing what the idea was or what it meant. So what we have really argued over and over and over again now for a year in Washington is what we could do to set up a system that would accelerate the creation of those success stories, so there can be millions more Arland Smiths.

I asked the Vice President to head a new Community Enterprise Board to try to come up with that sort of system, to change the Federal relationship with America's communities but also to set in motion a process for American communities which would require them to undertake the discipline of examining where they are, what they're doing right and wrong, and how to come up with strategies to succeed. I am very proud of the work that they've done so far.

And this occasion today in which we open the applications for the empowerment zones, I am absolutely convinced, will benefit every single community in America that participates in it whether they win the first round of zones or not, because they will be able to see that by doing the things that work, we can open up opportunities for people to live up to the fullest of their capacities.

Again, I want to thank Arland Smith for coming here today and reminding us what is really at stake and what can be done. I want to thank the business leaders for being here today, because we can't do this without you. You know it, and we know. And his story is an example of it. And I want to thank the Vice President and everybody who has worked on the Community Enterprise Board for an outstanding piece of work which he will now describe.

Thank you very much.

NOTE: The President spoke at 12:18 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to Arland Smith, a Youth Employment Training Program graduate.

William J. Clinton, Remarks on Empowerment Zones and Enterprise Communities Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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