Inequality ‘Is Impacting Our Economic Growth,’ Says Regional Planning Agency Director

CMAP unveiled a long-range comprehensive plan that highlights the problems facing Chicago over the next three decades — and offers recommendations for how best to address them. Tony Webster/Flickr

Max Green, Justin Bull

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Updated 5 p.m.

The level of inequality in the Chicago region is negatively affecting economic growth, according to the executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning or CMAP.

“Our region faces some challenges,” Joe Szabo said. “Our economic growth has not been as robust as our peer regions’, and clearly the level of inequality in our region is impacting our economic growth.”

On Wednesday, CMAP unveiled a long-range comprehensive plan that highlights the Chicago region’s strengths and offers recommendations for how best to address some of the region’s greatest challenges over the next three decades.

Racial inequality, particularly for African-Americans, may be the region’s biggest impediment to economic growth, Szabo said. “The region cannot grow if we continue to leave so many people behind.”

CMAP’s plan includes graphics and data illustrating racial disparities in educational attainment, unemployment, and median household income for the nation’s 25 most populous metropolitan areas based on analysis of data from U.S. Census Bureau for the years 2010 through 2014.

The unemployment rate for African-Americans in Metro Chicago was more than three times higher than the rate for whites — the widest gap among the metros included in the analysis. Metro Chicago also had some of the widest gaps between blacks and whites in educational attainment and median household income.

Among the region’s strengths, Szabo said the region is experiencing positive employment growth in both low-wage and high-wage jobs.

“But the center is hollow,” Szabo told WBEZ’s Melba Lara on Wednesday. “Those middle-income, middle-class type jobs that are the ones that traditionally sustain families are where we’ve not seen the robust opportunity.”

Some of the plan’s recommendations include rebuilding communities “to create opportunity close to where people live” as well as phasing out Cook County’s property tax classification system “to reduce commercial and industrial properties' current burden, which deters development and creates pressure for higher taxes overall.”

To help implement the recommendations, CMAP recently received a $500,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation and a $200,000 grant from the Chicago Community Trust, Szabo said. The complete plan, called On To 2050, is available to read on the CMAP website. Below are additional highlights from WBEZ’s conversation with Szabo.

Why ‘inclusive growth’ is fundamental to regional prosperity

Joe Szabo: The guiding principle, inclusive growth, is a critical one. It’s fundamental to the plan because there’s a great body of research that shows those regions that are most inclusive in their growth have longer and stronger periods of prosperity and shorter, less severe economic downturns.

On Chicago’s high African-American unemployment rate

Szabo: For me, [this] is one of the most important graphs because the way that the unemployment rate for African-Americans in Chicago jumps out — I mean, just leaps out compared to whites, Asians, or Hispanics — it’s so stark. And then, when you compare it to other regions, it is that much more stark than what you would see in L.A., or New York, or Boston.

Segregation and disinvestment in too many of our communities has taken a toll, and there’s deep history to this. So we have to take a look at those proactive steps that we can take together as a region and ensure that we’re allowing economic opportunity in these disinvested communities for disinvested populations. [Like] ensuring that we have the right job training. Not just job training for the sake of job training. But understanding where the region’s economic growth opportunities are — what are the industries and the trade clusters that we have? What is our economic strength? And how do we best generate career pathways into that to make sure that all residents of our community have the opportunity to really join in this prosperity?

Is 2050 that far away?

Szabo: It’s not. And in fact, a key part of the program today was actually looking back 32 years ago to 1986, both for some good humor but also to try and provide some level of perspective just for how things to change, but also how quickly that time passes by.