Promising development, but nation needs real jobs program

The announcement last week that eight southeastern Kentucky counties would make up one of President Barack Obama's first Promise Zones is welcome news, but it also serves as a reminder of the bleak state of national politics and economic policy.

Not that the region is not eminently qualified for a program aimed at alleviating economic inequality and joblessness by encouraging private investment.

Impoverished even before the recent devastating coal industry layoffs, the eight counties could not be more deserving.

And the timing is excellent, coinciding with a bipartisan effort at regional economic planning kicked off last month by Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers.

Calling it a rare and exciting opportunity, Beshear said: "The Promise Zone is just the kind of partnership that will spark new innovative efforts to grow the economy, empower new leaders and support families in Eastern Kentucky.

"The project's focused efforts to partner with local citizens to re vitalize their communities through strategic, regional approaches dovetail perfectly with our work in the SOAR initiative (Shaping Our Appalachian Region)."

We hope he's right.

Congratulations to Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp., the London-based non-profit that successfully sought the Promise Zone designation for Bell, Harlan, Letcher, Perry, Leslie, Clay, Knox and part of Whitley counties.

The Promise Zone comes with no federal money, just a promise from the White House that the Kentucky effort at economic revival will be first in line for technical assistance and funding through existing programs.

Twenty years ago, Kentucky Highlands successfully obtained an Empowerment Zone for Clinton, Jackson and Wayne counties. That Clinton-era initiative came with $40 million from the federal government, part of which still funds a $13 million revolving loan fund that has leveraged $120 million in private investment for economic development.

The contrast between zero dollars now and $40 million then underlines the diminution of national ambition during the past 20 years.

So does the refusal by Republicans in Congress to enact programs to put Americans to work by building infrastructure, restoring natural areas and investing in research, innovation and education.

At a time when the most urgent economic challenges are job creation and long-term unemployment, Republicans, led by our own Sen. Mitch McConnell, are fixated on long-term deficits, though they're not deficit-wary enough to entertain tax increases.

Nor are they willing to fight poverty by raising the minimum wage, an action that would put upward pressure on all wages.

It's a fine idea to focus attention on particularly desperate areas such as Kentucky's mountains or Oklahoma's Choctaw Nation, the other rural Promise Zone. We're grateful for the attention.

But the whole country needs to be a Promise Zone unless we're ready to lose the middle class.

It says something about the paucity of McConnell's economic development ideas that, after blocking Obama's jobs-creation proposals at every turn, the Senate's Republican leader scurried last week to take credit for an initiative that the president announced in his State of the Union address almost a year ago.