by Mick Dumke
Over the last year the city of Chicago cut nearly 1,200 middle-class jobs, the vast majority of them held by residents of black and Hispanic neighborhoods on the south and southwest sides that were already coping with disinvestment, vacant lots, empty storefronts, foreclosed homes, persistent joblessness, and crime.
This continues a trend that's been underway for years. These cuts bring the total since 2006 to more than 7,000.
The 2012 job losses appear to be the result of a combination of factors, starting with belt-tightening layoffs and privatization measures that were included in Mayor Rahm Emanuel's first budget last year. Aldermen say the cuts have a serious impact on the stability of their wards, especially during a slow economic recovery. They just don't know how else to steady city finances.
"I want to balance my budget, but not on the backs of people who are adding to our economy," says 34th Ward alderman Carrie Austin, the chairman of the City Council's budget committee, who's got the job because she's agreed to shepherd the mayor's plan to passage. Along with all 49 of her colleagues—yes, all of them—Austin voted for the mayor's 2012 budget, which cut personnel and services from the public libraries, health department, and streets and sanitation.
Over the last year, the 60628 zip code, which makes up much of Austin's ward, shed 53 city jobs, according to my analysis of payroll records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Since 2006, it's lost nearly 300.
"See, contrary to popular belief, I'm not getting all these damn jobs to give out," Austin says. "Those individuals were dedicated individuals."
The process is under way again. Aldermen began hearings this week on Mayor Emanuel's proposed 2013 budget, which promises no new taxes by counting on better revenues, raiding tax increment financing funds, and privatizing more jobs, including about three dozen customer service positions at the water department.
As usual, most aldermen have signaled support for the mayor's plans. But the water department proposal touched a nerve with some African-American aldermen who say their wards will bear the brunt of the cuts. "If you're outsourcing that much just to save money, you're taking an income base away," Austin says.
Since being appointed alderman in 1991, Austin has never voted against a mayoral budget. Of course, that doesn't put her in particularly select company.
Austin's ward is representative of Chicago as a whole. Altogether, the city payroll is down about 1,200 positions from last fall. Nearly a third of the reductions came in the police department. About 200 more came from streets and sanitation, and a hundred positions disappeared from libraries across the city.
Somehow the cuts didn't reach the mayor's office, which grew by a quarter, from 81 to 102 jobs. Spokesmen for the mayor have said some of the positions were transferred from the environment department, which the mayor eliminated last year, and several others were funded by a grant. But no other department grew by 25 percent.
The job reductions affected workers from around the city, but the biggest chunk—about 450—came in majority-black areas on the south side. Another 250 disappeared from Hispanic neighborhoods on the southwest side, and 200 more from the mostly black and Hispanic west side. (You can see a zip-by-zip breakdown here.)
Still, leading the way in job losses was the mostly white, far-southwest-side neighborhood of Mount Greenwood, in the 19th Ward. It's as close to copland as you can get in Chicago, with more than a tenth of all police department employees living there.
Alderman Matt O'Shea says lots of his constituents who are veteran police and firefighters are opting to retire, and hiring hasn't kept pace. He's worried about what the drop in city workers will mean.
"It's the backbone of my neighborhood," he says. "Those are the guys who coach Little League, who volunteer at the school."
Despite a recent uptick in the real estate market, O'Shea says the ward is dotted with empty homes, and it could take a while for things to even out.
Ironically, the 19th Ward has long been known for the political connections that brought it scores of patronage positions. "I can't give people jobs," says O'Shea. "I'm fighting to save jobs."