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"The Gautreaux Experience,"

by James E. Rosenbaum January/February 2000 issue of Poverty & Race

I am puzzled by those who focus on white attitudes as the lever for changing black disadvantage. Attitudes are a particularly ineffective lever for change. We don’t know how to change people’s attitudes, and attitude change doesn’t always change material circumstances. However, sometimes we manage to change attitudes when implementing policies that create integration experiences, especially if they also improve blacks’ opportunities.

Over the past 20 years, I have had the opportunity to study a distinctive integration program. As a result of a consent decree, the Gautreaux program has allowed families in housing projects (or on the wait list) to move either to white suburbs or to urban areas. While devised as a housing program, this program presents an unusual opportunity to test the effect of helping low-income blacks move to better labor markets, better schools and better neighborhoods.

Participants moved to a wide variety of over 115 suburbs throughout the six counties surrounding Chicago. Suburbs with more than 30% blacks were excluded by the consent decree, and very high-rent suburbs were excluded by funding limitations of Section 8 rent certificates. Yet these constraints eliminate only a small proportion of suburbs. The receiving suburbs ranged from working-class to upper-middle-class and ranged from 30 to 90 minutes driving time to their former addresses.

The program’s procedures create a quasi-experimental design. While all participants come from low-income black city neighborhoods (usually public housing projects), some move to middle-income white suburbs, while others move to low-income black urban neighborhoods. In principle, participants have choices about where they move, but, in actual practice, participants are assigned to a city or suburb location in a quasi-random manner.

My research examined long-term follow-up surveys of families. It found that mothers who moved to suburbs were more likely to get jobs than those who moved within the city. It found even larger differences for children. Children who moved to suburbs were much more likely to graduate high school, attend college and attend four-year colleges than city movers. Moreover, for those who did not attend colleges, those youth whose families moved to suburbs were more likely to be employed, and to have jobs with better pay and benefits than those whose families moved within the city. The suburb/city differences were not just statistically significant, they were very large – sometimes 50% or 100% better in the suburbs.

In talking with families, we could see how these radically different neighborhoods offered positive role models, social support, superior information (job contacts, knowledge of work demands) and strong normative expectations that students must work hard in school. By providing low-income families with new opportunities in the suburbs, this program showed mothers and children what they were capable of achieving. These were capabilities they would not have seen in themselves had they remained in the city. Indeed, the city movers never saw those capabilities.

Moreover, the suburban moves allowed their neighbors to see their capabilities and achievements. While families faced some harassment in the first year after moving, the harassment declined a great deal over the first year, and was at a low level by the end of the first year. Many neighbors, including some who were initially prejudiced, became friendly with the Gautreaux families. Suburban movers had as many friends as city movers, and while the latter tended to have only black friends, the suburban movers had many white friends, and they interacted with white neighbors, in daily casual talk, in having neighborhood children over to study and in having neighbors to dinner.

This program has demonstrated to the world the great untapped capabilities of low-income people and has shown a strategy for releasing these potentials. As a result, the program has attracted national and worldwide attention. The Leadership Council, a nonprofit organization appointed by the court to administer the program, has advised housing mobility programs across the United States and in other nations. The five-city Moving to Opportunity (MTO) program administered by HUD was directly modeled on this program and was advised by Leadership Council staff.

I cannot agree with the contention that there are no signs of positive integration in the U.S. today. The Gautreaux program has produced very impressive results for low-income blacks. Gautreaux has vastly improved the lives of thousands of families, and it has done so with low visibility and little enduring backlash. Judging from the stories of participants, it has also helped white neighbors change their attitudes, as they see these families’ accomplishments. Gautreaux is a small program, but the idea is being tried in many cities across the U.S. However, residential mobility is only beneficial if done right, and that requires a constant struggle.

James E. Rosenbaum is Professor of Sociology, Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. His books include Crossing the Class and Color Lines (Univ. of Chicago Press), with Len Rubinowitz, and Providing Career Options to the Forgotten Half (Russell Sage Foundation).

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