A Summit at UIC Aims to Make Progress on Poverty

Charles Dickens wrote about it. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about it. And Lyndon B. Johnson tried to end it.

Poverty was front and center at a summit Thursday at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where local policymakers, union leaders, employers and academics focused on how to end poverty in Chicago within a generation.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot says that’s her goal, too. But with 22% of Chicagoans now living in poverty, is that goal really achievable?  

“Chicago’s kind of the classic rust belt story. We started losing manufacturing jobs in the 1970s, it stepped up in the ‘80s, and we’re still recovering,” said Teresa Córdova, director of the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago and chairperson of the Chicago Plan Commission. “We’re still in this period of restructuring. This is an opportunity to restructure in a way that’s more inclusive. We really need to keep that in mind, that this is an opportunity.”

In 1960, at the height of manufacturing in Chicago, that industry employed some 657,000. Today there are only 110,000 manufacturing jobs in the city.

“Manufacturing is the kind of industry that has a wider impact, what we call a multiplier effect. Multiply each job by seven. That’s the impact that one manufacturing job has,” said Córdova. “The big policy failure is that there really wasn’t much done to accommodate those people and neighborhoods left behind when those jobs left. You had a lot of people across the city who were just out of work with few options. They went from well-paying jobs to minimum-wage service jobs.”

Many of those manufacturing jobs were in the city’s West and South sides, areas that still haven’t recovered from the factory closures. “People often call our communities of color disinvested. But they are being invested in, unfortunately it’s by things they don’t want,” said Elizabeth Todd-Breland, associate professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Over-policing, check-cashing outlets, convenience stores, liquor stores. There’s an astonishing level of creativity on the part of investors trying to make money off of poor communities.”

Todd-Breland says the government both deserves much of the blame for poverty and must be part of the solution.

“The Home Owners Loan Corporation was created by our government,” Todd-Breland said. “It was the HOLC that created the redlining maps, forcing black families to live and rent in overpriced neighborhoods whose value didn’t appreciate at the same pace as more sought after white neighborhoods.”

Todd-Breland says it’s time for the government to take a more active role in fighting poverty. “We need to give families more money. We should look further at the idea of a standard basic income,” she said. “We also need to reassess our tax policies. Over the years, corporations have been taxed increasingly less. That needs to change.” 

Córdova and Todd-Breland join “Chicago Tonight” in discussion, along with Dan Lurie, policy director for Lightfoot who is heading up the mayor’s poverty agenda.


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