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Chicago's Ambitious Anti-Poverty Plan | FIRSTHAND: Living in Poverty

Chicago’s Ambitious Anti-Poverty Plan

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her administration say their strategy is to directly address the role race has played in the city’s long history of segregation and inequity.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has an ambitious plan – a plan to end poverty in the city within a generation.

Lightfoot launched her plan with the Solutions Toward Ending Poverty (STEP) Summit, geared toward identifying the specific challenges of poverty and strategies needed to address them. Held in February 2020, just weeks before the global pandemic pushed the city to enact its first stay-at-home order, the summit became the first and last large physical meeting of community members, researchers, storytellers, and other local leaders. How to enact the “community-centered plan” had to be adjusted.

“The original plan was to run a very long ... community engagement process that would be kind of face-to-face across the city, and just given the public health challenges that that strategy posed, we tabled that,” said Dan Lurie, the mayor’s chief of policy. “But instead, we’ve really been pushing on a number of policy priorities that are fundamentally about the kind of systems-busting that the mayor has prioritized.”

Lightfoot and her team identified areas such as reducing the city’s fines and fees, raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2021 (an ordinance passed in the City Council in November 2020), and job creation as immediate solutions for addressing poverty. Specific plans for many of these policy changes have not yet been released, though the city has started to implement reforms such as vehicle ticket payment plans, utility bill relief, and ending Chicago Public Library late fees.

But the administration has also set its sights on addressing a much more challenging set of problems: the role race and segregation have historically played in fueling inequity in Chicago.

“[Mayor Lightfoot’s] focus at the summit and going forward has been really linking up racialized poverty with income inequality, and marrying those two very complex strands of policy problems,” said Lurie, acknowledging that the problems “are all fundamentally connected and lead to the kind of problematic outcomes on the ground that the mayor is trying to address.”

This approach looks at how the city’s policies have historically created systems that disproportionately hurt Black and Brown communities. It’s a recognition that poverty affects some of the city’s populations differently, just as the effects of COVID-19 have been felt more acutely by these same communities.

“Something that seems as universal as a virus certainly is playing out in deeply racialized ways,” said Candace Moore, the city’s first chief equity officer. “And our ability to address that has to confront the historical inequalities, the systemic barriers that exist for folks. And then, we have to design against it incredibly quickly.”

Workers’ rights and racism in the fight for fair labor

Moore’s appointment as Chicago’s first chief equity officer is an acknowledgment that any effort to deal with poverty in Chicago will have to confront the city's long history of inequity and segregation.

Historically, Chicago has been a city of haves and have-nots, with the impoverished lacking job opportunities, adequate wages, and fair working conditions.

“During its early days, there were already major clashes between workers and capitalists, the employers, because of the exploitation of workers,” said Elizabeth Todd-Breland, an associate professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago whose work focuses on racial and economic inequality.

Nineteenth-century working conditions were poor: Workers often died on the job, children were forced to work, and early European immigrant workers – who were not yet seen as white – were exploited, she says. This type of inequity sparked a number of labor movements.

Lori Lightfoot at lectern

The Arthur family arrived at Chicago’s Polk Street Depot in 1920, during the Great Migration. Clashes between workers intensified as more and more Black people arrived in Chicago during the first wave of the Great Migration, especially in the city’s major industries, like meatpacking and steel. Chicago History Museum; published in The Chicago Defender on September 4, 1920, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

But even as workers united to fight against unfair labor practices, workers of color were not welcome, and clashes between workers intensified as increasing numbers of Black people arrived in Chicago in 1915 during the first wave of the Great Migration. Those clashes between workers took place especially in the city’s major industries, such as meatpacking and steel.

“When [Black men] were hired, they were hired in the lowest paid and most dangerous work that was available in packing houses or in related industries, and for Black women, in the service and domestic work force,” Todd-Breland said. “And so, you see African Americans in particular, Mexican Americans as well, being brought in as strikebreakers, being brought in as a semi-permanent cheap labor source.”

Todd-Breland believes understanding such labor inequities are essential in diagnosing the racialized way poverty in Chicago has persisted.

As Chicago changed from an industrialized city to one based on service industries, it was still those same Black and Brown workers who – instead of getting high-paying service jobs in sectors such as law and finance – ended up in lower-paying service jobs such as in grocery and retail stores that have low wages and little opportunity for advancement.

“De-industrialization had a major impact on the city, but really disproportionately impacted workers of color, particularly Latinx workers and African American workers, losing jobs at higher rates than their white counterparts as part of de-industrialization,” Todd-Breland said. “And since that time, in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, you see the economy really change so we go from an industrial economy to a post-industrial economy, and Chicago's post-industrial economy is built on the service sector.”

These kinds of service positions are most likely to be affected by the Lightfoot administration’s goal of raising the minimum wage.

The New Deal — and worsening segregation

In the U.S., plans that did not factor in race to address poverty failed those populations most affected. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, which were aimed at helping Americans’ economic recovery after the Great Depression, were not equitable. These programs contributed to the current income inequality and worsened conditions for many.

“These New Deal programs ... are supposed to create a higher standard of living,” Todd-Breland said. “But even those collaborations impacted different groups differently and were racist in the way that they were administered. So things like federal housing policies, the collaboration between the real estate industry and local government and federal government contained Black folks in segregated residential communities [and] imposed restrictive covenants.”

Understanding Chicago’s history of segregation is also key in understanding poverty here. Segregation can be a wealth-builder for the white, affluent residents who have assets at the expense of poorer Black and Brown communities and is what education scholar Noliwe Rooks calls “segrenomics” — segregation economics. Todd-Breland cites segrenomics as a clear explanation for the patterns and types of poverty visible in the city today.

“The idea is that by containing Black people in segregated communities, then landlords can make a greater profit by charging exorbitant rents for really poor quality housing, because Black people have no other options,” Todd-Breland explained. “And so, in fact, segregation made the depths of people's poverty even greater, because you are already not having access to job opportunities that would allow you to make a higher income, and you're being charged more for the very same services like groceries, housing, etc.”

As a result, Chicago's poverty is heavily concentrated in Black and Latino neighborhoods. City data shows that while 20 percent of the city's population lives in poverty, 47% of households in predominantly Black Englewood live in poverty and 34 percent of households in predominantly Latino Humboldt Park.

What the City of Chicago has already done

Lori Lightfoot at lectern

As part of an ambitious plan to eradicate poverty in a generation, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has tasked her administration to address the role race and segregation have historically played in fueling inequity. Lightfoot launched her plan with the Solutions Toward Ending Poverty (STEP) Summit in November 2020 – just weeks before the global pandemic pushed the city to enact its first stay-at-home order.

This year’s STEP Summit was the official launch of the Lightfoot administration’s campaign against poverty, but since 2019, the City of Chicago has started to implement small policies that it says have a large impact on correcting past inequities. One significant change is in how the city tickets and fines residents.

“That's an evergreen project, given the complexities of how much the city relies on fines and fees for revenue,” Policy Chief Lurie said. “But also, the mayor has been clear that the city, in fact, needs more revenue. So this is not a project that is about eliminating the ability to regulate bad conduct.”

It is about, Lurie explains, changing the city’s policies so that consequences are not part of a “race- and income-neutral approach,” as in past years, but instead, that those fines and fees are “progressively designed and progressively collected” to take into account how they can affect residents at different income levels.

Aggressive ticketing in Chicago for everything from parking to city sticker fines has been proven to be especially punitive for the city’s most vulnerable populations. In 2018 and 2019, WBEZ/ProPublica investigations found city ticket debt was sending tens of thousands of Black, low-income drivers into bankruptcy.

“That has led to what WBEZ, ProPublica, and a number of other publications have shown to be just a real crisis of wealth extraction in communities where the city — not through any intent of any individual but through systems design — has become a place where we have been effectively preying upon communities with the fines and fee structure,” Lurie said.

That’s not equity, historian Todd-Breland says. She believes the city’s efforts to re-examine how these fines affect many Chicagoans is essential to fixing such wrongs.

“To the city's credit ... that's important because it’s a tax,” she said. “It ends up being a tax on poor people and just sort of an inconvenience on people with more money.”

Acknowledging how quickly this type of debt can accumulate for low-income residents, the city overhauled its ticketing and debt collection system. These reforms include implementing a payment plan to give residents more time to pay tickets (parking, standing, compliance, red light camera, and automated speed enforcement violations) and creating a “fresh start” debt relief program in which eligible residents who receive a discharge from a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case pay a portion of vehicle ticket debt and the rest is forgiven.

“[Lowering fines and fees] is one of the most visible, and in many ways, visceral costs that can pile up and lead to bankruptcy,” Lurie said.

The published plan explains the city also reduced fines and limited fees for impounded vehicles and says it also decreased the number of situations in which a vehicle can be impounded, though it recently received criticism for towing more than 230 vehicles during the first night of the city’s overnight winter ban on December 1. (Earlier this year at the start of the pandemic, officials held off on towing and booting cars that did not pose a safety threat.)

Lurie also acknowledges there are many other costs that make living difficult in a city like Chicago: transportation costs, housing costs, and other unseen fees associated with the city’s segregation. Specific efforts to address these issues are still being discussed and details are not yet available, city representatives say.

A “move” to opportunity

As the Lightfoot administration sets its agenda for reducing poverty, previous research into inequity in Chicago’s low-income neighborhoods could provide a roadmap.

Moving to Opportunity (MTO) was an experiment conducted in Chicago, as well as in Baltimore, Boston, Los Angeles, and New York City, that moved low-income families out of disinvested neighborhoods into communities with more resources.

“[The experiment was] motivated by the hypothesis that living in a neighborhood of concentrated poverty hurt the labor market outcomes for adults and hurt the schooling outcomes for kids,” University of Chicago professor Jens Ludwig said.

Ludwig is currently director of the university’s Crime Lab and co-director of the Education Lab, and since the 1990s, has served as the project director for Moving to Opportunity. He explains that the Chicago families who were a part of the experiment lived in the Robert Taylor Homes, a public housing project once located on the city’s South Side on State Street between Pershing Road and 54th Street.

“The hope or assumption was that helping families move out of Robert Taylor and lower poverty neighborhoods in other parts of the city, or the suburbs, to where families wanted to go would help parents earn more money and help kids do better in school,” Ludwig said.

But researchers did not receive the results they expected.

“For the first, say, 15 years that families were tracked,” Ludwig said, “we didn't see the sort of big gains in adult earnings or kids’ schooling outcomes that I think many people had been expecting, which was a real surprise.”

Ludwig says it wasn’t until Harvard researchers later took a look at IRS tax data of those who were young children at the start of the project that they noticed significant bumps in earnings. Although the parents in the experiment did not experience an increase in earnings themselves, their children later did as adults. Jensen theorizes these results show the importance of intervening early to remove younger children from poverty and improve their circumstances.

“I think one lesson from that is concentrated poverty is particularly harmful to little kids,” Ludwig said. “If you were going to suggest a key policy priority for the mayor, you would say, ‘Let's prioritize reducing exposure of little kids in particular to concentrated poverty, as much as possible, and/or give them whatever additional supports they need on top of that.’”

Although parents did not receive higher earnings and children did not do better in school during the first 15 years of the experiment, researchers did see improvements for both groups in other metrics, such as mental and physical health. Ludwig says rates of illnesses such as diabetes and depression drastically declined.

“Another thing that MTO highlighted for all of us was that there's an important distinction between reducing poverty and improving the lives of the poor,” Ludwig said. “The poverty challenge in America is often framed as: How do we reduce income poverty? And then, anything that we do that doesn't reduce income poverty is being viewed as not helpful.”

Ludwig says policymakers should look beyond income opportunity to examine other ways to improve the lives of families.

“It's weird that we think about social policy … as if only money matters,” Ludwig said. “Obviously, we want to reduce income poverty, but I think that we want to do more than that, too. We want families to have not just more income, but we also want them to have better physical and mental health, and have a better feeling of security and better public safety, and all these other things, as well.”

Housing Choice Partners is a Chicago-based nonprofit that helps families move to well-resourced areas. It works with residents in Chicago and suburban Cook County who have housing vouchers through Illinois’s Rental Housing Support Program (RHSP). Through RHSP, families receive rental assistance to live in subsidized rental apartments and homes –  families must have a household income of 30 percent or less of the area median income and must not pay more than 30 percent of their income towards rent. (This program is different from the Chicago Housing Authority’s Housing Choice Voucher Program, which is federally funded through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.)

RHSP recipients are encouraged to learn more about high-opportunity areas that might be better for them. But making that choice – and the move – can be difficult, so Housing Choice Partners provides mobility counseling to voucher holders. This counseling includes assisting with housing discovery in neighborhoods that would work well for their families.

“Ultimately, the mobility company program started as a way to help desegregate vouchers, but nowadays, it's really about giving families greater housing choice,” Executive Director Andrea Juracek said. “And if they choose to move, we want to make sure that they have the information and resources they need to actually make that move possible.”

Juracek sees patterns in those her organization works with, who are primarily women of color, often without access to traditional lines of credit, banking, and other financial services in their communities. This lack of community investment further shows how poverty is racialized in the city, she says.

“…[W]hen you think about the adverse effects on communities that are low-income and primarily communities of color in Chicago, poverty is really about systemic racism and racial equity and thinking about what needs to change in the communities that our families are currently living in and why they're even looking to move,” she said.

Juracek recognizes that moving families to communities with better resources is not a long-term solution for the communities they’re moving from, but it is a solution to those families’ urgent needs. She sees her work as the “flip side of the same coin” of community investment. The problem, she says, is that there’s a narrative that in the Chicago area there aren’t enough resources to give all communities what they need – a narrative she says is not true.

“There's almost a false sense of limit,” Juracek said. “And we know that there are options available for families that need to move now because their children need opportunities now. And so, if they can't find those opportunities in their current neighborhood, what options do they have and how can we help support those options.”

Moving families to other neighborhoods is a quick fix. But Ludwig says there can be benefits to studying high-opportunity areas to better understand how these environments improve outcomes for families. Experiments such as Moving to Opportunity can determine the specific investments these areas might need the most, and that can help develop economic development strategies, he explains.

“Moving to Opportunity was intended to learn more about all sorts of place-based policies, not just [residential] mobility,” he said. “But also things like neighborhood economic development.”

Lightfoot administration: This is a “generational fight”

To understand what communities need, Moore, the city’s equity officer, says the city is committed to working directly with those who know best – its residents. COVID-19 has sidetracked the city’s original plan to physically work closely with community members in generating solutions. But she says it remains a priority of the city to include residents themselves in the planning process.

“The only way you really get smart and specific around that is by working directly with those most impacted,” she said. “So working with residents who are actually experiencing the problems and bringing them in on both the data as you understand it, the policy constraints as you understand it, the opportunities, etc.”

That feedback from community stakeholders is a key initial step, Moore says, in creating these new policies.

“Although the feedback may generally not look like a full policy initiative, it's actually building from that feedback to try to get to the overall solution,” Moore said. “And so, I think that is the muscle that we are trying to build here in the city and then really think about that across many different perspectives.”

The city says it plans to quickly design against systemic barriers keeping residents in poverty, but that the overall strategy – and its implementation – will take some time.

“The mayor's perspective here is this is a generational fight,” Lurie said. “This is not something that will get done in a year or two. Rather, this is something that will require the city and its partners, and frankly, the national government, state government to work at for a long, long time. But we must start locally, we must start with what we can control. And we must start to improve quality of life and the economic conditions on the ground in Chicago.”