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A New Housing Program to Fight Poverty has an Unexpected History

Some cities are trying to help poor children succeed by having their families move to middle-income, "opportunity areas" -- an idea once politically impossible.

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In 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took his fight for civil rights to Chicago in hope of ending housing discrimination.

He failed, but his example encouraged Dorothy Gautreaux and other plaintiffs to file suit against the Chicago Housing Authority, charging it with racial discrimination.

The city had some 18,000 public housing apartments, almost exclusively in Black neighborhoods.

The plaintiffs argued that the city had deliberately pursued that policy to prevent Black people from moving into white neighborhoods. They sought a court order that ordered public housing be built in white neighborhoods.

After a protracted court fight, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1976 in favor of the plaintiffs.

To comply with the order, the government tapped a relatively new voucher plan that relocated a few thousand families from Chicago public housing to predominantly white middle-class suburbs with better housing, schools and job opportunities.

By the 1990s, social researchers found that the voucher program had dramatized the impact of geography on opportunity. Families who moved to the suburbs were distinctly better off than their inner-city counterparts.

Parents found better paying jobs, better housing, and a better quality of life. Their children were more likely to graduate from high school, attend college and obtain better paying jobs than their inner-city counterparts.

That lesson – that a better environment can provide better opportunities – continues to inform public housing programs today. But the inequality bred of geography that gave rise to Gautreaux more than 50 years ago remains, and often makes zip code a determinant of destiny.