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CHICAGO'S DIVIDE: Economic Inequality / By: Caleb Dunson


The ongoing pandemic and the tragic death of George Floyd have ignited movements for change across the world. As a result, we as a nation have been forced to reckon with the systemic racism that has pervaded some of our most powerful institutions for centuries. Economic inequality is among the issues that have taken on national importance. In Chicago, the issue is incredibly urgent.

Over the past half-century, Chicago’s middle class has decreased, leaving an ever-widening chasm between the rich and the poor. Between 1970 and 2017, Chicago’s middle-income households shrank from 50 to 16 percent while low-income households grew from 42 to 62 percent (Lutton, 2019), and with America’s shift from factory labor to a service economy, the middle class doesn’t seem to be returning any time soon.

So where does this leave Chicago residents? In some neighborhoods, very well off, while in others, not so much. As of 2016, Naperville stood as “the wealthiest city in the Midwest with a median home value of over $365,000” while “21 percent of people in metro Chicago live below the poverty line” (Crains Business, 2016). Because Chicago stands as one of the most segregated cities in the country, the abundance of opportunities for those who live in wealthy suburbs, north-side neighborhoods, or along the gold coast never reach communities like Englewood, Austin, and North Lawndale.

According to an Urban Institute study referenced by Greg Hinz of Crain’s Chicago Business, capital investment flows as much as nine times more to affluent white Chicago neighborhoods than it does to low-income African-American ones.(Hinz, 2019)

As a young Black Chicagoan that has grown up in Austin and attended Whitney Young High School, I have seen the troubling consequences of economic inequality. I have seen the vacant lots with cracked asphalt and weeds sprouting in my neighborhood, the dilapidated houses with boarded-up windows and rotting wooden steps, and the run-down corner stores covered in spray paint. At my school, I have seen the construction of a multi-million dollar sports complex, parents and students drive into the school parking lot in shimmering Mercedes Benzes and Range Rovers, and I have seen my peers strut around the school in flashy designer clothing and shoes worth hundreds of dollars.

The incredible difference in income and wealth between black and white Chicagoans pervades the most crucial aspects of everyday life. With COVID-19 raging, these drastic inequalities have taken on more dire consequences. Irina Ivanova of CBS News reports, “African Americans are more likely to work in jobs that can expose them to the virus, less likely to be able to take time off from work and more likely to be the sole breadwinner for their family” (Ivanova, 2020). In that context, it is easy to see how as of August 11, 2020, black Chicago residents have the highest COVID-19 death rate, at 152.6 per 100,000 (City of Chicago, 2020).

Despite a seemingly bleak state of affairs, there are people and organizations working to address the deep-seated issues in our city, thus showing us a path forward.

One such program is One Summer Chicago, which employs young people across the city, particularly those in under-served communities, giving them valuable work experience and helping them develop critical job skills that can extend to college and the full-time workforce. The Economic Awareness Council, who produced this magazine and for whom I work, partners with One Summer Chicago to bring banking and financial literacy information to young people and give them the resources they need to save and grow their wealth.

On a larger scale, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has championed a program called Invest South/West, which plans to give underfunded communities an economic jolt. A total of $750 million will be used to renovate old infrastructure, encourage community-based entrepreneurship, and ultimately make Chicago a more equitable city (City of Chicago).

These programs are far from the only ones in the city, nor are they the end-all solution to wealth inequality and economic inequality, but they’re a start.

And as we look to move forward as a city, we need young voices, your voices, to join the fray. We need you to speak up and fight for justice in the classroom, on the job, on social media, and everywhere else. We need you to take action and engage in your community. We need you to contact your elected officials, join local community organizing efforts, sign petitions, propose innovative ideas, and do whatever you can to help build a more equitable city.

The power of collective action is tremendous and inspiring, and if you join the fight to solve the problem of economic inequality in Chicago, I have no doubt that we the people will find a solution.


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