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July 7, 1999

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July 7, 1999

As I've traveled around the country, I've seen Americans enjoying the fruits of our economic prosperity. But I've also visited big cities and remote rural regions where, despite the rosy economic forecasts, unemployment statistics are bleak, good jobs are hard to come by and families are struggling. It is in places like these, I've learned, that small economic investments can go a long way toward helping our poorest citizens.

I'll never forget a visit I once made to a women's resource center in Denver, founded to promote economic independence for low-income women in one of that city's poorest neighborhoods. Many of the women I met had been on welfare, but they had skills, such as baking and sewing, and wanted to start their own businesses. What they didn't have was access to credit, because most banks refused to give them loans. One woman turned to me and said, "Too many great ideas die in the parking lots of banks."

I have seen successful small loan -- or microcredit -- programs helping to lift people like these women out of poverty in many parts of the country -- from here in Washington, D.C., to Chicago and Arkansas, where my husband and I introduced the concept when he was governor. I have also seen them in action in such far-flung corners of the globe as Nicaragua and Bangladesh.

My husband and I have often talked about how we would like to see successful public-private partnerships like these expanded to help more communities in our own country.

For years, our government has offered the private sector a variety of incentives to invest in emerging markets overseas. In order to introduce them to these potential new markets, the Secretary of Commerce has taken American business leaders and members of Congress on trade missions around the world.

But there are actually $85 billion in untapped markets right here at home. This week, accompanied by a delegation of corporate CEOs, community leaders and members of Congress, my husband embarked on a four-day, six-state tour to highlight some of the communities in this country that are ripe for such investment and to promote his New Markets Initiative. Using new tax incentives and investment tools, the President's proposals would make it more attractive for corporations to invest in these "new markets," where they have rarely, if ever, invested before.

America is in the midst of its longest peacetime expansion ever. We have witnessed the creation of 19 million new jobs, wages for ordinary people are on the rise for the first time in 20 years, and we have the lowest minority unemployment rate ever recorded.

But let me tell you about a family my husband met this week in Tyner, Ky. Ray Pennington is a self-described "old timer," who, at age 69, had never met a President of the United States -- until this week. Under the shade of a walnut tree, Pennington and his daughter, Jean Collett, described life in the neighborhood of mostly dilapidated trailer homes where they live. Pennington, who recently lost his wife of 51 years, has emphysema and uses a portable oxygen tank to help him breathe. Collett quit her job at the local Dairy Queen to care for her father. Now, their primary source of income is her son-in-law's $6.30 an hour job at Mid-South Electronics, Inc.

Pennington and his neighbors desperately need better transportation and housing. Most of their homes have tar-paper roofs and broken windows covered with cardboard or wood. Electricity came to the development in 1961, but Collett didn't have running water in her bathroom until five years ago.

I can't help but wonder: If we can't help families like these when times are good, when are we going to get around to doing it?

The President's trip this week is designed to be a trade mission -- a domestic trade mission -- aimed at prompting $15 billion worth of new investments not only in the places he's visiting -- Tyner, Ky., Clarksdale, Miss., East St. Louis, Ill., Phoenix, Los Angeles and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, much of which is in the poorest county in the nation -- but also in dozens of other needy communities.

Ray Pennington's story should remind us that, although this has been a great time for America, not every American has benefited from our country's success. As we move into the 21st century, if we don't make a commitment to helping every willing and hard-working citizen reap the benefits of our prosperity, we will have failed not only to meet our moral obligation, but also to make the most of America's promise.

To find out more about Hillary Rodham Clinton and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.


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Talking It Over: 1999

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