The economic causes of Chicago’s violence | On Politics | Chicago Reader

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The economic causes of Chicago’s violence

The city continues to pursue policies that advance inequity.

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Latekia Sims and hundreds of other marchers carried wooden crosses for victims of gun violence during a peace march down the Magnificent Mile December 31. - ASHLEE REZIN/SUN-TIMES MEDIA
  • ashlee rezin/sun-times media
  • Latekia Sims and hundreds of other marchers carried wooden crosses for victims of gun violence during a peace march down the Magnificent Mile December 31.

The New Year began in much the same horrifying way the old one unfolded—with stories of murder splashed across the pages of our papers.

In particular, the January 1 Chicago Sun-Times featured a sobering image of photographs of most of the people murdered last year under the headline: "Our city, one year, 780 murders."

The moving elegy to those who died by columnist Mary Mitchell included an observation that hit me hard:

"Cranes are everywhere in downtown Chicago, where white workers scurry in hard hats and steel-toed work boots," Mitchell wrote. "But on the south and west sides, large tracts of land are blighted and commercial properties are boarded up. Here, young black men huddle on corners—rain or shine—day and night. Some of them will live to turn 30. So many others will not."

I realize the economic gap between haves and have-nots isn't the only reason for the incomprehensible violence, most of which is concentrated in, as Mitchell notes, several impoverished, largely black south- and west-side communities.

But as the guy who spends his days poring over how city's leaders spend our money, I'm convinced it sure as hell can't help to so unfairly and inequitably distribute our resources to favor the rich over the poor.

I think back to the November 18 City Hall press conference, which featured many of Chicago’s most prominent black elected officials. It was about a week after the senseless murder of Javon Wilson, Congressman Danny Davis's 15-year-old grandson, who was shot by a teenager in a fight over sneakers.

The officials called for the adoption of a "10/20/30 amendment"—a policy in which 10 percent of city, state, and federal funds would be spent in neighborhoods where at least 20 percent of the population had lived below the poverty line for the past 30 years.

"You would have resources coming directly to communities that are most in need, and the impact would be so great, you'd wonder you weren't in heaven," Davis said.

"We must invest in these communities to eradicate poverty," added state senator Kwame Raoul, "and in eradicating poverty, we will eradicate violence."

It makes sense. And yet we continue to pursue policies that lead us in the opposite direction. Those who already got get more. And those who don't get the shaft.



Let's start with the obvious: the tax increment financing program. Usually, just the mention of this $450-million-a-year scam would get me to crack a joke. But I'm not feeling very funny at the moment.

Our greatest source of discretionary economic development money, the TIF funds are largely spent in wealthy neighborhoods even though the program's intended to eradicate blight in poor neighborhoods.

To cite just two examples, last year, Roseland's TIF generated about $460,000. The LaSalle Central TIF—located in the Loop—took in about $27 million. That means the downtown will always have more "spending money" than the far south side. How’s that for balance?

It's hard enough for poor neighborhoods to compete with rich ones for development dollars without the government essentially putting its thumb on the scale to benefit the wealthy. But that's what the TIF program does.

By its very nature, it will always generate the most money for gentrifying neighborhoods. It's a crime that a program this unfair would be the chief source of development dollars, pitting the poor against the rich. And yet year after year we allow this inequity to persist.

There's not much help coming from the state, either. Governor Rauner and his Republican allies in the legislature steadfastly oppose any progressive tax hikes while calling for a property tax freeze. They're slowly bankrupting government in the name of saving it.

In 2011, Rauner, then a private citizen, tried to use his clout with Mayor Emanuel to block a hotel tax hike that would fund services, according to the mayor's recently released private e-mails. And yet as governor, Rauner signed on to a massive hotel tax hike to fund the DePaul basketball arena/Marriott hotel project on a high-rent corner of the South Loop.

So when it comes to funding essential services that might fund programs to help the poor, Rauner's against it. But he favors jacking up taxes to fund a boondoggle. That's twisted, my friends.

The Democrats aren't much better—especially Emanuel, the architect of that DePaul/Marriott deal, who rules like a closeted trickle-down Republican.

In one e-mail, he bragged to a wealthy friend about cutting health benefits for retired city workers—often the economic backbone of poor, high-crime neighborhoods. Cutting their income, like closing schools and clinics, hits communities already under siege the hardest. No need for me to review all the schools and clinics Rahm has shuttered.

By and large the city's aldermen go along with the mayor's policies because they're hoping he'll throw a little TIF money their way.

State senate president John Cullerton and house speaker Michael Madigan aren't much better. They let the mayor do what he wants, so long as he stays out of their business in Springfield. Things pretty much operated the same way with Mayor Daley.

I don't expect any of this will significantly change in 2017. The mayor's major development schemes—the Old Post Office, Rezkoville, the industrial area around the former Finkl Steel site—will have virtually no positive impact on our must vulnerable communities. They might as well be on the moon.

A few years back, I asked a south-side alderman why the city's civic and political elite tolerate all the shootings in and around his ward.

"'Cause they don't give a shit," he said.

Considering how they use the tools at their disposal, it's hard to come to any other conclusion.   v


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