Finding opportunity for those in distressed communities

Today, more than 52 million Americans live in a distressed community. I grew up in one of those neighborhoods, where hope seemed like nothing more than a mirage. I watched so many friends and neighbors lose the sense that they could accomplish something meaningful, and end up in jail, or worse, dead. At the same time, I watched my mom work 16-hour days just to keep a roof over her children’s heads, showing the kind of passion and work ethic on which the American Dream is built.

I know that when we keep hope alive in communities, they will flourish. That will require us to rethink how we extend a helping hand to those in need. One thing we have learned over the past 50 years, is that while the federal government-led War on Poverty was well-intended, the results have been bleak. In 1970, the national poverty rate was 12.6 percent. In 2016, the same poverty rate was 12.7 percent.

We should not be building a safety net, but rather an abundance of opportunity that provides Americans with a pathway to a more financially secure and prosperous future. We cannot be satisfied simply stopping the growth of poverty. While a worthy accomplishment, stopping there would be failing tens of millions of Americans.

This month, governors across the country will be designating Opportunity Zones in their states as part of the newly passed tax reform law. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act included my Investing In Opportunity Act (IIOA), which creates an avenue for the more than $2 trillion in unused capital gains in our nation to flow into these Opportunity Zones. For low-income communities, this could truly be a game changer.

Part of the reason the IIOA was such an important provision to me is, as a former small business owner, I know the challenges small business owners and entrepreneurs face as they try and raise or build capital for their business. These challenges are even more prevalent in low-income areas like the one in which I grew up.

I strongly believe that this model, which does not create a new government program or utilize government dollars, will be incredibly impactful for communities across the country. The people living in distressed communities have amazing ideas and strong work ethic, they often simply lack a door to opportunity.

That’s why I am kicking off my nationwide Opportunity Tour today, and heading to Florida with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) next month. Just as the IIOA was powered by the idea that access to capital is challenging for business owners in low-income neighborhoods, the next generation of ideas to spread opportunity will be found in those high potential areas that are currently under resourced.

I will be traveling around the country this year to learn from folks how we can fight poverty, synchronize our job training programs with the needs of local communities, win the battle against opioid abuse and eradicate the vestiges of hopelessness in as many areas across the country as possible.

These ideas will help power the future of my Opportunity Agenda, bring more awareness to the issues facing low-income communities, and show what the true potential of these communities really can be. Regardless of background, upbringing or socioeconomic status, every American should enjoy unimpeded access to opportunity, and to be able to climb their way to a more fruitful tomorrow. Let’s work together to restore the American dream, and finally make real, permanent change to the issue of poverty that has beleaguered our nation for far too long.

Scott is a member of the Senate Finance Committee, Banking Committee and Small Business Committee.