Insights

How to Build an Equitable COVID Recovery for Chicago

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This op-ed appeared in Crain’s Chicago Business on October 8, 2020.

Before the pandemic upended our lives, Chicago appeared to be on the upswing from the Great Recession, with unemployment and household income nearly back to pre-recession levels. But even then, the recovery did not benefit everyone equally. Housing prices lagged, and Black and Latinx Chicago – two-thirds of this great city’s population – never fully recovered, battered by persistently high unemployment levels and income a fraction of whites. 

As the city looks to survive and recover from the pandemic, we cannot afford to make the same mistakes. It is no accident that Black and Latinx communities have borne the worst of the human and economic devastation of coronavirus – including 2,200 of Chicago’s nearly 3,000 deaths. Chronic underinvestment in communities and businesses, combined with conditions that exacerbated health risks, left communities of color uniquely vulnerable to the virus and its economic consequences.    

The fact is that Chicago cannot recover from this pandemic unless we *all* recover. As the city confronts the twin epidemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism, Chicago has an opportunity to build a more equitable recovery. A new initiative taking shape is working to do just that. Today, my organization, the mayor’s office, Chicago businesses and philanthropies, and community leaders launched Together We Rise an initiative for an equitable and just recovery. This collaboration was created to increase funding, align business practices, and change policies to build a more prosperous Chicago for everyone.  

We firmly believe this is possible if we are willing to take on entrenched systems and direct resources where they can make a real difference: 

First, increase investment in Black and Latinx communities. 

Bank loans and private capital investment in communities of color are a fraction of white neighborhoods. A recent analysis found that lenders invested more money in single majority-white neighborhoods such as Lincoln Park  than they did in all of Chicago’s majority-Black neighborhoods combined. The same was true for Lakeview and West Town. We must increase investment in small businesses and spur catalytic development in underinvested areas, especially on the South and West sides of Chicago, where 10 neighborhoods have already been designated priority in the city’s INVEST South/West initiative.   

Second, understand that businesses and the private sector have an essential role to play. The corporate community has the opportunity to extend beyond philanthropy, by making catalytic investments in disinvested communities and ensuring community members shape and benefit from changes to their communities, procuring goods and services from Black and Latinx entrepreneurs and businesses, investing in and hiring people of color living on Chicago’s South and West sides, and increasing the diversity of the professional services firms they retain.

Third, ensure public policies promote equity. There is much policymakers can do to right historical inequities. By enforcing and strengthening the Community Reinvestment Act, we can ensure banks provide access to capital and affordable lending products that allow households to build wealth.  By investing in better transit and jobs in impoverished communities, Black and Latinx Chicagoans won’t have to spend so many unproductive hours each day commuting. Other affordable actions – like expanding eligibility for the earned income tax credit to people without children and caregivers, and helping students attend community colleges debt-free – could help many build wealth, get better jobs, and weather difficult times.  

Five years from now, if we bounce back as a region, we should bounce back together. Racial and economic inequity is longstanding, but it is not inevitable. When roughly two-thirds of the region is being left behind or cannot fully participate in our economy, the region will continue to suffer economically.  

We can envision a better city: where the 30-year life expectancy gap between Streeterville and Englewood is eliminated; where loans and investment in Black and Latinx communities are commensurate with majority-white areas, where young people of all races and ethnicities can come out of school and obtain high-quality public and private sector jobs.   

If we succeed, the Chicago region could serve as a model for the country in building back stronger – and possibly transform the systems that have held back communities of color for centuries.