City job cuts hit black and Hispanic neighborhoods hardest

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Sandi Jackson
  • Sandi Jackson
“Efficiency” and “savings” have their price.

Over the last five years, the third-largest employer in the city of Chicago has cut more than 5,800 jobs, most of them held by residents of black and Hispanic neighborhoods already struggling with unemployment, foreclosures, disinvestment, and dwindling public services.

That employer, of course, is the city of Chicago. Under Mayor Rahm Emanuel and predecessor Richard M. Daley, the city downsized its payroll from about 39,600 in 2006 to 33,800 this past fall, and hundreds of additional job cuts are budgeted for this year. These figures don’t include thousands of other layoffs in the city schools, parks, CTA, or housing authority.

“I’m appalled,” said Alderman Sandi Jackson upon learning that her Seventh Ward is one of the leaders in city job losses. “There are people who are always yelling and screaming about a smaller government. They think these layoffs are the magic bullet for our economic woes, but they’re not. They put even greater strain on our communities.”

What Jackson didn’t say is that Mayor Emanuel is one of those ambitious politicians—from both parties—who’ve won accolades by vowing to shrink the size of government.

Slashing the city payroll is central to Emanuel’s effort in Chicago. “City government is not an employment agency,” Emanuel declared during his campaign for mayor last year, and he’s followed through on this theme with scores of cuts during his first eight months in office. His first budget—the one passed with the ayes of Jackson and all 49 of her City Council colleagues in November—cut hundreds more jobs and privatized others.

As a political strategy, it’s hard to argue with, since plenty of middle- and upper-class people are ready to blame public-sector workers for high taxes, poor services, crumbling infrastructure, and the difficulty of finding a decent tomato during the winter.

Hey, it’s got to be somebody’s fault.

Plus, there’s the fact that for generations the government payrolls in places like Chicago have been larded with patronage employees, whose chief responsibilities were helping to elect and then prop up favored political operators, including Emanuel when he first ran for Congress.

Now that big-money fund-raising networks are taking the place of ground troops, most pols find it more helpful to kill patronage armies publicly—or privatize them slowly—than to keep them around for Election Day. And so comes the talk about bringing efficiency, competition, and good management to your government.

Sometimes it’s actually true. But even then, there are unintended consequences, since public-sector job cuts are still job cuts.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my attempts to find out where pink-slipped city workers lived. I’m happy to report that the Emanuel administration eventually coughed up data that helps provide a glimpse—specifically, the zip codes of all current employees. The data do not include the names, street addresses, or job titles to go with any of the zip codes.

Still, what the numbers do show is revealing.

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After multiple rounds of payroll trimming and early retirements, there are now 2,100 fewer south siders working for the city than five years ago. That means the mostly black and Latino communities there bore a disproportionate share of the cuts: though about 30 percent of all city workers lived in south side neighborhoods five years ago, they’ve accounted for about 37 percent of the axed jobs.

Meanwhile, northwest side residents made up roughly 22 percent of the city workforce but only sustained 11 percent of the cuts. But that doesn’t mean the news was cheery there either—northwest side neighborhoods still suffered a net loss of more than 600 city jobs.

The eight zip codes that ranked highest in city job losses were all in predominately black and Hispanic neighborhoods on the south and southwest sides. Topping the list was 60617, which includes parts of the South Shore and South Chicago neighborhoods, represented by Jackson, Michelle Harris (8th Ward), and John Pope (10th). The zip code area lost 363 city jobs.

Public sector jobs have helped many families make the middle class and pay mortgages. In fact, they're the anchors in neighborhoods like Auburn-Gresham, Avalon Park, and West Lawn. So it’s probably not a coincidence that many of the zip codes with the biggest city job losses have also been hit hardest by the ongoing foreclosure crisis.

For example, there were 1,423 foreclosure filings in the 60617 zip code area in 2009 and 2010 alone, ranking fifth in the city. The leader in foreclosures in those years was the 60629 area, centered around Marquette Park on the southwest side, which suffered through an astounding 2,636 foreclosures in those years. It also ranked fourth in city layoffs, with 310.

The only city existing zip code area that added city jobs was 60654, centered in the Gold Coast and River West areas downtown. (For all the zip code numbers, click here.)

The cuts have also impacted neighborhood maintenance and public health. Just about every city department has trimmed positions, but the biggest reductions have come in the departments that provide the most visible public services: police (down 1,764 jobs), streets and sanitation (1,161), water (426), and health (418). At the same time, the city's economic development efforts have also taken a hit, losing more than 100 staffers.

“When people ask, ‘Why are these communities eroding?’, they only have to look at how we’re losing these jobs,” Jackson says. “It’s a cycle we really can end.”

So why do Jackson and her colleagues keep signing off on these cuts if they’re so problematic? She’s a bit coy about that, saying that even when aldermen are told layoffs are coming, they’re kept in the dark about the details.

“I’m incensed about this,” Jackson says.

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