The Washington Post
Friday, May 26, 2000; Page E04

U.S. Task Force Targets Poverty Along Mexican Border

                  By Glenn Kessler
                  Washington Post Staff Writer

                  After a year of study, a Clinton administration task force yesterday outlined
                  a plan to make a hodgepodge of federal programs more effective at
                  combating poverty and unemployment along the border with Mexico.

                  The region, which stretches across four states from California to Texas,
                  has been plagued by persistent economic problems even as the rest of the
                  country has enjoyed a record boom. The area's population, more than 12
                  million, is growing twice as fast as the rest of the country, while per capita
                  income, poverty rates and educational achievement lags behind much of
                  the rest of the country. Unemployment in some counties in the region is as
                  high as 28 percent.

                  But officials say many communities in the region have not figured out how
                  to benefit from the alphabet soup of federal programs designed to provide
                  job training, housing assistance or economic development, while federal
                  agencies generally haven't adapted programs for the unique needs of the
                  region. Some efforts, such as training for those displaced when jobs moved
                  to Mexico, have been criticized as ineffectual.

                  "This is the first time that all of the agencies have come together to
                  coordinate and exchange information," said Lynda de la Vina, Treasury
                  deputy assistant secretary for economic policy, who was the chief staffer
                  on the project. "We need to make sure that programs can be customized
                  to the needs of the border."

                  The task force urged the development of a strategic plan for the region,
                  convening a White House conference, making the entire region eligible for
                  certain programs and appointing a White House staffer who would act as a
                  liaison between the government and border communities.

                  The task force also announced 16 initiatives that ranged from the large
                  (promoting Internet access and training to small businesses and creating a
                  new Southwest border division at the Department of Housing and Urban
                  Development) to the small--installing 10 kiosks to provide information in
                  English and Spanish about housing programs.

                  The task force will shortly designate at least four communities--out of 39
                  applicants--that will act as testing grounds for greater federal support. The
                  group will also create federal response teams, modeled after task forces
                  that help cities recover from weather disasters, that will work with
                  communities on the best way to tap federal resources.

                  President Clinton issued an executive order last year establishing the task
                  force after several lawmakers complained that not enough attention had
                  been paid to the area after passage of the North American Free Trade
                  Agreement in 1993 broke down trade barriers between the United States
                  and Mexico.

                  NAFTA has dramatically increased the population of cities on the Mexican
                  side of the border, saddling communities on the U.S. side with new
                  transportation, population and environmental concerns. Meanwhile, the
                  administration was criticized for too slowly starting up new banking and
                  economic development initiatives that it had promised as part of NAFTA.

                  While the task force held six public forums in recent months, seeking
                  comment and advice from hundreds of local residents, it has to some
                  extent labored in obscurity. Few lawmakers, except those directly involved
                  in its formation, appeared aware of it.

                  The interagency task force, which reports to Vice President Gore, was
                  chaired by Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers over the past year.
                  Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman assumed the chairmanship yesterday.