It’s time to stop the war on the poor in Chicago. We hear the talk all over the inner city. Poor people want to leave the city because they feel it is unsafe and un-affordable. It does not take sophisticated analysis to see the linkages between the poverty rate and violence in certain neighborhoods. Between 2000 and 2010, Chicago lost 200,000 residents. One-hundred eighty thousand of those were African American.
Over that decade, we witnessed the dismantling of the histrionic public housing developments that rung around the Loop. These projects were named after great social reformers such as Jane Addams, Henry Horner, Harold Ickes, Robert Taylor, Ida B. Wells, and Saint Francis Cabrini. They are all gone now. Seemingly, also gone is the great social vision of the city as a promised land for all of God’s children. We must include the poor in our vision of recovery from the “Great Recession” and urban renewal. The poor families and their children have a right to live in the city with its’ great treasures of culture and human achievement. We must speak out on how current public policies contribute driving the poor out the city.
Driving the poor from the city may not be the intent of certain policies, but these policies sure have that effect. There are at least six basic areas of city policies that constitute a war on the poor:
One, the proliferation of fines and fees. The city is becoming a tough place for poor people to hang on to their lives and their cars. Two parking tickets makes a car eligible for the boot. If you don’t pay up quickly, your vehicle will be confiscated and your fine bill compounded. If parking tickets were not enough, now “speed traps” have been set up around schools and parks. Speed bumps would have effectively addressed a non-existent school and park safety crises. But, speed bumps don’t produce tickets. Be clear, is not about safety. It’s about revenue. The fee and fines policies really constitute a regressive tax on Chicagoans. Last week, hundreds of cars were towed for snow route parking “violations” on an unusually balmy December 1st in Chicago. These policies do not affect all people the same. If you get a boot and have an American Express card in wallet; you have had a bad day. If you are single with children, and you make the minimum wage and function with a debit card; a boot means you have a family crises!
Two, the home foreclosure crises in the inner city has created a glut of abandoned houses. The city’s solution (?), let’s put red X’s all over these communities and make the whole neighborhood look critical. How much do you want to pay for a house next to a big ole red X? Not much? Me neither. These obvious abandoned properties scream “let’s get the heck out of here”, in big red letters. Cheap land in a vibrant city like Chicago being abandoned by desperate people must be an investors dream.
Three, closing schools in struggling neighborhoods help make a powerful point. This neighborhood is a “hood” made up of neighbors and political leaders too powerless to fight for its’ interest and remaining assets. This place has been written off. The real action and good schools for good children are somewhere else. Any good parent with any live options is seeking to vacate a neighborhood with boarded up schools. I might add, poor parents are good parents too.
Four, by not hiring police and having police work overtime to address the violence crises in certain neighborhoods, even poor people can figure out that any improved public safety is temporary. It’s a small band-aide on a big wound. Something else must need to happen before these neighborhoods are populated with citizens worthy of long term, permanent policing human resources. With the temporary fixes, we use occupying police forces under war like conditions to incarcerate more poor people. We could never get to healthy police-community relations under these conditions.
Five, the way Tax Incremental Finance supported initiatives are diverted away from neighborhoods of poor people to more substantial neighborhoods and downtown projects seems to counter the logic and progressive mission of a tax money diversion. We should be investing those dollars almost exclusively in the most fragile neighborhoods with the greatest need. Taking from poor communities to stimulate projects for the wealthy is not morally justifiable.
Six, reducing mental health services in communities of economically and socially desperate humanity is counterproductive and immoral as well. Shamefully, we now expect law enforcement and jails to warehouse distressed people under stresses that exacerbate mental health challenges. We force poor people to live in neighborhoods with mentally ill people whose treatment is the revolving door of recycled criminal justice cases.
Is there any wonder that poor people are looking to leave the city under these condition? And these are the conditions that current public policy is making worst. I don't think people in power always see life from the lenses of these communities when they help make public policy priorities. Morally, the poor have a right to live in the city like everyone else. Poor children need to live in close proximity to the cultural and intellectual heritage of humankind that can only be found in cities. I grew up in the Jane Addams public housing development on the near Westside of Chicago through the 1960’s to mid-1970’s. Our family of ten lived in a three bedroom apartment. We were poor and black, but in the shadow of the downtown and with access to the great museums and the culture of the city, we were not isolated. We were poor with direct access to the great cultural treasures of the city. My parents made sure we took advantage of the public school, and our educators made sure we took in the rich civic culture.
They great social reformers of the previous century understood that all families had a right to the city, to the tree of life. That is why they fought for justice and inclusion, and a universal human right to life in the city. Someone in this city must speak for the poor, and for the vision that all the neighborhoods constitute one city. Even in these tough times, we cannot balance budgets at the expense and exclusion of those with less resource and power. None of us will be morally comfortable with a prosperous city with concentrated pockets of extreme poverty within the city or outside the city. It will be a horrible outcome to oversee the evolution of a rich city with geographically distant suburbs of extreme poverty segregated from opportunity, resources, and civic life. Shifting problems by driving the poor from the city means we have not solved problems. We should all commit ourselves to engaging in a war on poverty, and not a war against the poor.
From the Desk of Rev. Dr. Marshall E. Hatch
New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, Senior Pastor
The Leader's Network, Chairman of the Board