Sen. Tim Scott: Opportunity zones are really working

The 2017 tax reform law was a once-in-a-generation tax cut for America’s families, small businesses, and workers. A huge part of that victory was that we were able to bring hope and prosperity to communities that have been left behind through new Opportunity Zones.

I grew up in economically distressed neighborhoods, and I know that the last thing struggling communities need or want is the federal government telling them what their problems are or what their solutions should be. So, instead of taking a top-down approach to addressing poverty, Opportunity Zones empower our community leaders, mayors, and governors to come together to decide for themselves which of their neighborhoods should be designated to participate.

I am from these communities. I’ve been to these communities. I’ve toured these neighborhoods, and I’ve spoken with the people there. I’ve witnessed the collaboration, the unity, the excitement, and the willingness to work, from Florida to Iowa to Colorado. I’ve watched the new growth and development, in urban and rural communities alike, that is the beauty of the Opportunity Zones initiative. It doesn’t pick winners and losers or utilize a one-size-fits-all approach to economic development. It serves as one more tool in the tool box to empower communities and investors to come together to identify and achieve projects and investments that will make a difference for their residents.

In my home state of South Carolina, there is a new $54 million-dollar tech corridor that’s finally becoming a reality because of the Opportunity Zones law. And just last month, a nonprofit announced that it has formed a partnership to construct rural healthcare facilities and make healthcare accessibility a reality for our rural communities.

Nationally, we see projects like the construction of an innovative vertical farm that will work to employ formerly incarcerated individuals in Wilmington, Delaware. In Charlottesville, Virginia, a mobile home park will be transformed into 800 units of affordable housing to be offered first to current residents. The site will also offer rent free commercial space to current residents interested in becoming first-time entrepreneurs. Newark, N.J., has seen the start of a $40 million-dollar fund to provide housing for our nation’s school teachers. In Erie, Pennsylvania, it’s a multi-million-dollar fund dedicated to investing in early-stage I.T. and cybersecurity startups. In Chicago, 3,300 units of affordable homes will be updated and preserved over the next three years. Needless to say, change is coming.

For the first time, countless communities are being shown that they can compete and that achieving opportunity is possible. Yet, instead of focusing on how the American people are benefiting from this law, some of the critics who oppose Opportunity Zones choose to cherry pick investment portfolios of a few select individuals.

These skeptics insist it is no more than a Republican tax cut serving as a windfall for the rich. It is remarkable how the voices that so often criticize Washington for an apparent lack of bipartisanship can be so quick to forget it. The Opportunity Zone legislation has had broad bipartisan support since its inception. In fact, in the last Congress in which it was introduced as a stand-alone measure, it boasted 95 bipartisan cosponsors between the House and Senate.

It’s also important to clear up any misconceptions on the zones themselves. Of the 8,766 census tracts designated as Opportunity Zones, more than 20% have poverty rates of 40% or higher, compared to just 5% of communities nationwide. The average poverty rate of zone residents is 28.9%, more than twice the national average. Only 6% of all zones have a median family income above the national average, while 71% of zones meet the U.S. Treasury Department’s definition of “severely distressed.”

These numbers help demonstrate that, as a whole, our state and local leadership accurately selected census tracts that are severely distressed and long overdue for investment.

My original legislation included significant reporting requirements on the outcomes of the Opportunity Zones initiative. And while these were stripped out of the bill due to Senate rules, I have worked to have them reinstated. I was the first to say that if the program brings more harm than good to our nation’s communities that I would shut it down, and I stand by that. I am very happy to say that I have not had to consider doing that, and I will continue to track the progress of these zones day and night.

We set out to find a way to restore hope in the American dream for those who have felt left out of it. I am proud to say that each and every time I have visited one of our nation’s opportunity zones that is exactly what I’ve seen. I am proud of the work I have seen take place thus far and I invite those willing to join me in touring these neighborhoods and witness for themselves the faith and good work that I have seen.