Crain’s Chicago Business recently reported that downtown Chicago is attracting more wealthy residents than the suburbs and the rest of the state are, and that poor people are fleeing the city.
So, is Chicago becoming a new Oz where everyone is happy, well-fed and gainfully employed?
More likely, it’s becoming two cities — one where optimism abounds, one where hope and opportunity are hard to find.
While the national unemployment rate fell to 7.7 percent last month, the jobless rate in Illinois rose to 9 percent.
In nine of the city’s ZIP codes, unemployment remains higher than 10 percent. In seven ZIP codes it hovers between 7 and 10 percent. In only four ZIP codes — three of them along the north lakefront — is the unemployment rate below the national average.
While Chicago is on the rebound from the worst of the recession, the recovery has been far less robust here than in all major cities, except Miami and Detroit. Many Chicagoans are poorer than they were before the economic downturn.
Households below the poverty line have increased more than 9 percent since 2000 — and not where you might expect. While hardship increased in ZIP codes with historically high rates of poverty, the greatest increases occurred in traditionally healthy communities like Forest Glen (155 percent), Montclare (136 percent) West Lawn (126 percent) and O'Hare (101 percent).
The very structure of Chicago’s economy has changed. Over the last decade, particularly in the last five years, Chicago lost thousands of good-paying jobs in construction, manufacturing and government, while gaining jobs in retail, hospitality and professional services, which pay far less.
The Atlantic Citiesrecently published urban scholar Richard Florida's fascinating map of employment in Chicago, which reveals what job seekers have long suspected.
Chicago has attracted a vaunted “creative class” whose members earn $75,000 or more annually, but they are a majority in only 67 of the city’s 810 census tracts. These lucky few are clustered on the north lakefront and Hyde Park. In only 37 tracts are more than half the residents employed in a traditional working-class job category that pays $40,000 a year or more.
The small creative class and smaller working-class areas stand out amid the 491 census tracts where the majority of residents work in retail, hospitality or health care, and earn less than $30,000 per year, often between $18,000 and $21,000.
This snapshot represents a painful change for many of the city’s residents. Illinois earned the dubious distinction as the state where income disparities have grown the most, with incomes of the richest up by more than 11 percent and middle- and working-class folks down by 15 percent.
Chicago’s foreclosure rates continue to rise; when income drops, people cannot pay their mortgages. The CTA needs more revenue, but those who ride the bus or the “L” are least able to pay. There is resistance to closing schools, resentment over higher parking meter rates.
None of this had to be. This is the result of decisions made (or not) in the past by our city, corporate and civic leaders. We have to shape the future for a different outcome for the city and all its residents.
Ensuring that our residents have the education to compete in the job market is a good first step, but not enough. Some with college degrees work for $10 an hour at coffee shops. With the growth of the service sectors, an increase in the minimum wage could help ensure that a full-time job does not leave a worker beneath the poverty line, as it does today. But, that is still not enough.
We must commit to the good-paying jobs that support families and stabilize neighborhoods so that the whole city thrives. We need to invest not only in tech sectors but also in the legacy industries. We need to nurture the talents of the city’s college graduates by providing opportunities for them to grow professionally. We need to welcome new immigrants, and we need to support the entrepreneurs who will fuel the local economy with energy and innovation.
None of this will be easy, but we control the trajectory. Let’s not consign our grandchildren to looking back and condemning us for failing to make the city a place of opportunity, not just for the few, but for all who choose to call Chicago home.