Perhaps if more minorities got state contracts, there would be fewer minorities out of work.

That’s a stretch, but perhaps it’s partly true. In The Chicago Reporter’s current cover story “Empty jackpot,” reporter Megan Cottrell tallied how many businesses benefitted from a state program that grants contracts to businesses owned by minorities, women and people with a disability.

The state pats itself on the back for reaching its overall goal, 20 percent. I give the state credit for having a goal—many states don’t, Cottrell found. But several key state departments fell short of that 20 percent mark, which ultimately cost these business owners an additional $586 million, according to Cottrell’s report. In other cases, departments gave the bulk of their money to one contractor.

But 20 percent is a low goal. Women are half of the state’s population and 36 percent of Illinois’ 12.8 million residents are minorities.
So why then are these groups getting $1 for every $5 and the remaining $4 going to businesses owned by white men?

This is significant, some experts say, since studies show that minority companies are more likely to hire minority employees (especially black-owned companies). If there’s no money to give them, or if the state pays these contractors late, the businesses run the risk of folding, and the jobs provided by those employers disappear.

In 2010, the unemployment rate in Illinois was 10.3 percent. When broken down by race and gender, black men had the highest rate at 21.9 percent and white women had the lowest at 7.8 percent. For the disabled, it was 16 percent. Perhaps, the state is contributing to the unemployment problem vis-à-vis the lack of contracting dollars.

Twenty years ago, these programs seemed to be important and necessary. They’re still necessary today, though these efforts don’t seem to be as much of a priority as they once were. As we look around our city, it’s clear that money and jobs aren’t flowing evenly into every community. The disinvestment of businesses is clear. The state shouldn’t be contributing to that.

The state should increase the bar for how much money should go to these targeted groups. The number of women, minorities and disabled people in the state warrants it. The state should hold each individual department to the 20 percent goal, as well. Departments should also diversify the diversity within the contracting program so that it’s not just a few big minority or women or disabled contractors getting all the big contracts, leaving the other businesses to fight over the paltry leftovers.

Experts have also suggested that these disenfranchised groups get more leverage to effect change and that the state create an easier path to access these lucrative contracts.

It’s sad that even when the state has set aside a piece of the pie, many people aren’t allowed to eat it.