Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot says she’s ending poverty in a generation. Is it possible?

The STEP summit dissected the scope of poverty in Chicago and examined policies that have been successful so far.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks at the Solutions Toward Ending Poverty Summit in Chicago Feb. 20, 2020.

Courtesy/City of Chicago

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks at the Solutions Toward Ending Poverty Summit in Chicago Feb. 20, 2020.

This week, Mayor Lori Lightfoot kicked off perhaps her most ambitious campaign yet aimed at eradicating Chicago’s endemic poverty in a single generation.

That first step came in the form of the Solutions Toward Ending Poverty Summit held Thursday on the University of Illinois at Chicago campus. The 7-and-a-half hour conversation dissected the scope of poverty in Chicago and examined policies that have been successful so far. The administration hopes to convene a multi-sector collaborative strategy to achieve her goal. You can watch a recording of the event here.

Lightfoot’s plan includes eliminating regressive taxes like extra fines and fees, creating quality jobs with livable salaries, lowering the cost of utilities, providing financing for more affordable housing and helping Chicagoans better access public benefits.

One idea her plan won’t incorporate is a universal basic income, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

“I am about teaching people how to fish, so they can feed themselves for a lifetime,” said Lightfoot, “I want people to be able to stand on their own forever.”

Though the full plan hasn’t been created yet, aldermen were hopeful the initiative would build on existing city efforts.

It comes down to making “available resources more available,” said Ald. Jason Ervin, chairman of the city’s black caucus. “If you’re not aware of it, it’s almost like it doesn’t exist.”

He also hoped the initiative would focus on helping the underemployed gain skills. 

According to the Chicago Community Area Economic Hardship Index, maintained by the UIC Great Cities Institute to measure economic conditions in the city, the Riverdale community located in Ald. Anthony Beale’s 9th ward on the far South Side was the most economically depressed.

In January, Beale announced Amazon would be bringing a distribution center and hundreds of jobs to his ward, though Lightfoot said Beale got ahead of himself with the announcement. The area also recently lost a grocery store, he said, adding what it really needs is an “opportunity,” he said.

“We’ve been pushing for the Red Line extension because the Red Line extension will connect that community to the rest of the city. That’s been a promise from the city for over 40 years,” Beale said.

Here are some takeaways from what we know of the mayor’s plan:

Can regressive policies and taxes like a casino and gaming coexist with this anti-poverty agenda?

Lightfoot inherited a budget — with a massive deficit — that depended heavily on regressive fines, fees and other taxes. She’s already moved to reform how the city handles tickets and city stickers and ended water shutoffs for residents who can’t pay their bills. 

But gaming is still big business in low-income communities of color, whether it is the lottery, video gambling, or a possible casino. Lightfoot addressed the issue in a one-on-one conversation with City Bureau’s Darryl Holliday at the summit. 

While she wants the casino for the revenue it would bring, it is not a “panacea” and the negatives it will likely bring can’t be ignored. 

“We can’t ignore the downsides of the variety of things we indulge in, that we legalize, but have potential bad consequences. It’s not just casinos. It’s alcohol. It’s marijuana. It’s pharmaceutical drugs. We can’t pretend there aren’t negatives that follow all these things that governments charge taxes on and make revenue from,” said Lightfoot, adding that some money will be going towards addiction care.

“I want a Chicago casino because the revenue will help shore up our pensions, but I’m abundantly aware of the social costs that are going to come with that.”

Will increasing wages effectively lift people out of poverty?

Last year,  Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a law that would raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2025, but the Lightfoot administration pumped the gas increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2021. 

While rents have been rising faster than salaries, “overall these moves in minimum wage help people. Rents are rising irregardless of wages. I think overall that rising rents have been a positive,” said Ervin, chairman of the black caucus.

While the full plan will come together over the next year, the tone for her reforms have been set by raising the minimum wage faster and her reform on fines and fees, which she plans to expand.

What is actually happening with poverty in the city? 

Census data analysis on poverty in Chicago

Poverty has proven to be one Chicago’s most vexing issues, alongside segregation and racism, and over the last 10 years has barely budged according to Census data. In 2010, about 17% of families in the city were below the poverty threshold, which in 2019 is about $25,000 for a family of four. In 2018, that number fell to 15%. 

The city has also been losing population for years especially on the South and West sides, which are home to the highest concentrations of poverty.  By the year 2030, Chicago’s black population is projected to drop to 665,000, down from 1.2 million at its peak in the 80s. 

The next steps will include a community listening and engagement tour in partnership with Hearken.

David Eads produced the graphic for this story using a new tool we’ve been experimenting with called Observable. You can see his work here.