Chicago, the city that works—just ignore the poverty



Mayor Emanuel addresses business leaders downtown on Monday
  • Chandler West/for Sun-Times Media
  • Mayor Emanuel addresses business leaders downtown on Monday
Chicago is a shining example for the nation, Rahm Emanuel wants all to know. He told a receptive audience downtown Monday that the goals President Obama has for the country—more jobs, a vibrant economy benefiting all—are Chicago's goals, too, but "the difference is, we are obviously getting them done."

Lest anyone think he was insulting Obama, Emanuel quickly added that the president has Congress to contend with. "As I always joke with him, what you need is a City Council like Chicago's," the mayor said, winning a hearty laugh from the crowd.

Emanuel was addressing a roomful of CEOs and other VIPs at the University of Chicago's plush Gleacher Center. The event—"Strong Cities, Strong Nation"—was sponsored by World Business Chicago, an economic-development corporation chaired by the mayor that "fosters private sector growth and jobs through the advancement of a business-friendly environment that attracts world class talent," according to the group's website. The moguls came to hear from Emanuel and from Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to Obama.

Jarrett mainly reiterated the plans the president laid out last month in his State of the Union address. It’s a "robust agenda", she said, but given the intransigence of Congress, Obama needs cities to take the lead, the way Chicago is doing.

The president apparently agrees that his hometown is a model for America. You may recall that in December, he spoke in Washington about the nation's "dangerous and growing inequality." For children born in poverty in the U.S., the prospects of advancement are dim, he observed. He went on: "The idea that so many children are born into poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth is heartbreaking enough. But the idea that a child may never be able to escape that poverty because she lacks a decent education or health care, or a community that views her future as their own—that should offend all of us, and it should compel us to action."

Later in the speech, he flattered Chicago: "We've watched cities like Pittsburgh or my hometown of Chicago revamp themselves. And if we give more cities the tools to do it—not handouts, but a hand up—cities like Detroit can do it, too."

Obama didn't explain how Pittsburgh and Chicago had revamped themselves, and the comment escaped media attention. I still have no idea what he meant. How has Chicago revamped itself? When did this happen? Where can we see the signs?

The White House press office hasn't responded to my calls and e-mails seeking clarification. In defense of the president's spokespersons, they may be wondering what he meant too. Maybe he was just blowing a kiss to his former chief of staff.

There are many ways to assess cities. I judge them on the scope and depth of their poverty. By that measure, Chicago has needed revamping for ages—and still does.

In 2000, nearly one in five Chicagoans—19.6 percent, or more than 556,000 people—were living in poverty. That's not a statistic any major city could be proud of. A decade later, our poverty rate has increased, to 22.1 percent. (The poverty line for a single adult younger than 65 is $11,344.)

In 2000, 10.1 percent of Chicagoans were living in extreme poverty—their incomes were below half of the poverty line. Today, in revamped Chicago, the proportion of residents in extreme poverty is—still 10.1 percent.

One of many boarded buildings in Englewood, this one at 59th and Eggleston.
  • Steve Bogira
  • One of many boarded buildings in Englewood, this one at 59th and Eggleston

Those figures are from a new report by the Social IMPACT Research Center of the Heartland Alliance. Each year, the center analyzes census numbers and tabulates the socioeconomic status of Chicago's 77 community areas. The citywide poverty numbers aren't new, but the figures on the community areas are—and they show that the city that’s "obviously" getting things done isn't getting them done in the neighborhoods desperate for help.

Ten community areas have poverty rates of at least 40 percent: Englewood, West Englewood, Washington Park, Oakland, Fuller Park, Burnside, and Riverdale on the south side, and West Garfield Park, East Garfield Park, and North Lawndale on the west side. You might expect that a revamped Chicago would no longer be hypersegregated—but these ten communities are 92 to 99 percent African-American.

Seven of these ten communities also lead the city in extreme poverty, with at least 20 percent of their residents below half the poverty line. That's an extraordinary rate, given that people in extreme poverty are often living in shelters or squatting in abandoned buildings.

The plight of the residents of these neighborhoods should "offend all of us" and "compel us to action," as the president said in his December speech. But these communities are neatly sequestered from most better-off Chicagoans—and from our distance, we're not easily compelled to act. Most of these neighborhoods had dreadful poverty rates more than 40 years ago, and in these last four decades their poverty has only grown.

Consider Englewood. It sits between the Dan Ryan and Racine, Garfield Boulevard (5500 South) and 75th Street. In 1970, Englewood's poverty rate was 27 percent; in 1980, 36 percent; in 2000, 44 percent; now, it’s 48 percent. Chicago seems to be revamping Englewood in the wrong direction.

World Business Chicago, the group that sponsored Monday's "Strong Cities, Strong Nation" program, says this on its website about the quality of living here: "Chicago is a smart, dynamic city that offers a quality of life unparalleled by any other major metropolis, providing a true community with world class amenities for businesses and people."

Overlooking the PR hyperbole, the quality of life here depends greatly on the neighborhood.

From 2007 through 2011, the annual per capita income for Chicago was $27,940. In Lincoln Park, one of Chicago's most affluent communities, it was $73,130. In Englewood it was $12,250.

As in most low-income communities, children in Englewood are born preterm, of low weight, and to teens far more often than children in affluent areas. Here are birth rates per 1,000 teens in 2009, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health: citywide—57; Lincoln Park—2.1; Englewood—105.7.

Englewood residents are far more likely to die prematurely from cancer, homicide, unintentional injury, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. A public health measure, Years of Potential Life Lost, gauges premature death (before age 75). The annual Years of Potential Life Lost rates per 100,000 residents between 2005 and 2009: citywide—8,574; Lincoln Park—2,971; Englewood—17,441. Residents of Englewood, in other words, lost almost six times as many years of potential life, per 100,000 people, as residents of Lincoln Park.

Maybe when more recent public health figures are available they'll show remarkable improvement in Englewood, and in Chicago’s many other impoverished communities. But don’t bet on it. The roots of poverty, and its partner in crime, segregation, are so deep here that eradicating them would be a decades-long project. It’s not something that Emanuel and Obama could have made marked progress on in their brief years in office, no matter how hard they tried.

But willful blindness by our leaders is unhelpful, because it enables our penchant for not genuinely addressing these problems. I understand that mayors feel they need to be their cities' salesmen—that undoubtedly is part of the job. Until poverty and segregation are truly in remission here, however, Emanuel might stop gloating about what a fine example Chicago is. And Obama should realize that praising Chicago is especially cynical in a speech on inequality, given the severe inequality in our "revamped" town.

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