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Now, is geography destiny? Does the place where you were born and raised determine how far you will get in life? Harvard economist Raj Chetty and colleagues recently developed an online tool called The Opportunity Atlas. It is a map. It's a map that uses tax and U.S. census data to track people's income from one generation to the next. And it reveals some uncomfortable truths. It turns out even what block you were born on can make a big difference. NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports that in one New York City neighborhood, the divide is especially stark.
JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: When people find out where Audra Palacio is from, they often react in disbelief.
AUDRA PALACIO: Well, how could you come from there, and you lived there? And it's like - almost as if it's like, I can't believe you made it out.
GARSD: Palacio was born in the Linden Houses, a brick complex, public housing to several thousand families right next to Brownsville in Brooklyn. Nearly 40 percent of Brownsville lives in poverty. And if you look at The Opportunity Atlas and zoom into Brownsville, a lot of it is exactly what you'd expect. Black kids raised in the area 30-some years ago now make about $17,000 a year, same as their parents. But once you head across Dumont Avenue, everything changes. Black kids from the same exact background are doing better than their parents, making around $26,000 a year. To find out what happened on the other side of Dumont Avenue, people told me to go to church.
DAVID K BRAWLEY: If the Lord has been good to you, you ought to thank him for blessing you.
GARSD: Reverend David K. Brawley is one of the leaders of East Brooklyn Congregations. In his office, he tells me that in the early 1980s, Brownsville, N.Y., was often referred to as...
BRAWLEY: The beginning of the end of civilization - burnt-out homes, empty lots. People were leaving the city in droves.
GARSD: In the '80s, New York City had been hard-hit by a recession, then the crack and HIV epidemics. There was a part of Brownsville that was totally abandoned - the other side of Dumont. The New York City government sold over 16 square blocks of Brownsville to the East Brooklyn Congregations for $1. Those blocks were dilapidated, rundown. The city agreed to build infrastructure and provide cash subsidies for over a thousand affordable homes. They would start selling at $30,000 each. They were called Nehemiah houses after the man in the Bible who rebuilt parts of Jerusalem.
RUTH PALACIO: The family was growing, and we needed something that was much better for the children.
GARSD: Ruth Palacio is Audra's mom. She and her husband came to New York from Honduras and Belize fleeing poverty. They identify as both black and Hispanic. They say they're grateful that public housing was available when they needed it but jumped on the chance to move on when the children were born.
R. PALACIO: I didn't like elevators - up and down the elevators for my children because there was a lot of people living in the housing projects.
GARSD: For a lot of people in Brownsville and the surrounding areas, coming up with $30,000 for a house was impossible. For the Palacio family, it took generations' worth of savings.
R. PALACIO: My mother built her first house out of bamboo. Then eventually - she was hardworking. She used to trade. She built a house out of timber. Eventually, she built a house of concrete cement blocks, just like the story of the three little pigs.
GARSD: Audra Palacio was 6 when they bought the house.
A. PALACIO: I remember when we moved into Nehemiah's. We were so excited. We had rooms. We had space. We had a backyard.
GARSD: In their new online tool, economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues at Harvard found that the sooner kids move out of an area with such limited opportunity, the better they will fare. When the Palacio family moved, they didn't just get a backyard. They shifted their future like a ship changing course. Here's Reverend Brawley.
BRAWLEY: I'm not surprised when I look at this map and see the seed that has planted, there has been a harvest.
GARSD: There are a lot of factors that determine a child's success. Having a mom like Ruth Palacio, tough but loving, is definitely one of them. But it turns out geography also matters. A lot of kids who moved here from public housing did a lot better than those they left behind. Reverend Brawley beams when I tell him two of the Palacio children are working on their master's and Ph.D. He says the Nehemiah houses in Brooklyn gave children a space to do homework, a good night's sleep.
BRAWLEY: When people have ownership of their properties, ownership of their community, you have a better chance of addressing all core issues such as education and quality of life.
GARSD: A neighborhood that can focus on more than just surviving the day-to-day. Brawley points out that those quaint $30,000 Nehemiah houses built on land once sold for a buck are now valued at as much as half a million.
BRAWLEY: What has happened is that families now have wealth that they can pass down generationally.
GARSD: And that's just what the Palacios did. They passed their Nehemiah home on to one of their daughters. After I leave the family, I walk just a few blocks to Dumont Avenue. According to the Atlas, it's the dividing line. On the map it looks jarring, but in person it's completely unspectacular. People bustle on their way to work. Cars zoom by. Just another New York City street - it means nothing. But what side you're on means everything. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York.