A Nation Engaged: New Study Finds Disparity In Economic Hardship In Chicago

Rob Hurson/Flickr
Rob Hurson/Flickr

A Nation Engaged: New Study Finds Disparity In Economic Hardship In Chicago

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A new study has found many Chicagoans living on the South and West sides are struggling financially, while many living Downtown and in many North Side communities are not.

Teresa Cordova, director of the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said there isn’t the same access to jobs in many South and West Side neighborhoods. Cordova said she believes investing in these communities is necessary to reverse the economic inequality.

Morning Shift’s Tony Sarabia spoke with Cordova Wednesday about the new Economic Hardship Index and economic mobility in Chicago. 

Tony Sarabia: How would you describe the current state of affairs when it comes to the economy here in Chicago?

Teresa Cordova: The unemployment rate is improving in some sectors, but we know from our reports and from our observations that in Chicago, joblessness is chronic, and it’s concentrated, and it’s comparatively worse than other large cities in our country.

TS: You say it’s concentrated. Why are men finding it hard to find jobs?

TC: Well, specifically African-American men. In the first report that we did back in January, African-American men between the ages of 20 and 24 … nearly half of them are neither in school nor employed. So that is a pretty stark figure. I think many people were very taken by that number.

But what our data did is it really highlighted and supplemented the voices of the young people themselves who’ve been telling us … is that they want to work. They want to work and they’re actively looking for work, but that the barriers they keep encountering make it more difficult.

TS: Given the recession that we came out of, are employers taking into consideration that we were in a hard time and that there might be gaps on resumes?

TC: You’re right to point out that there has been this dip in employment since the recession of 2008, but some of these problems actually were set into motion further back then that. Specifically, we look at the mid-1970s when we saw the de-industrialization occur, not just in the city but other places. Those populations — whose labor force was most concentrated in manufacturing such as Latinos and African-Americans — were most severely hit by that. So part of what we’ve seen now over the last 40 years is we’ve seen also a shift in the labor market. So not only did we not find ways to incorporate those unemployed or  people who lost jobs because of manufacturing, but then the labor market itself changed and we didn’t necessarily make the connections between the kinds of new jobs that might be available then and the kinds of training that would be needed. 

So there’s a mismatch currently between the jobs that are available and the training for [them]. But that’s not the only problem. One of the solutions is [developing] strategies between matching the jobs with the people who are looking for those jobs. That requires the education and the training to go with that, including on-the-job training. 

The Great Cities Institute’s Economic Hardship Index considers six variables — unemployment, education, per capita income level, poverty, crowded housing, and minor and senior dependency — to calculate a hardship level for each of Chicago’s communities. (Courtesy of the Great Cities Institute)

TS: In the past, it seems like the common trend for individuals would be to move to an area with jobs — the Stockyards for example — and establish roots there. But it seems like now you’re saying we should reverse that by finding a community that needs employment opportunities and putting them there.

TC: A lot of people [used to come] to the various neighborhoods you mentioned — like the Stockyards [and] South Chicago and the steel mills — people moved there because the jobs were available. So what’s our responsibility when they’ve moved there for the jobs and then the jobs leave? … If the jobs leave, what happens to those neighborhoods? And so what is the economic policy responsibility to bring jobs back to those neighborhoods? 

Because part of what gets left behind is the devastation of these neighborhoods. Which is part of why we applied this hardship index to look at Chicago, because it takes into account a number of variables — not just unemployment, but it takes into account income, crowded housing, education, whether they’ve completed high school, and a couple of others … so this hardship index, when we applied it, it tells us that [economic hardship] is a function of the neighborhoods.

So then when we look at solutions and we say well, “it’s up to the individual, why shouldn’t the individual be the one who can just pull themselves up from their bootstraps?” Well if we believe the adage — and we do — that it takes a village to raise a child — if you pillage the village, then what happens to the child? If there are no resources, and if the resources are drained,  the economic base of that neighborhood is drained … so our strategy does have to include rebuilding neighborhoods and bringing economic opportunity into those neighborhoods.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. To listen to the entire interview, click on the listen button above.

This segment is part of a week-long collaboration between public radio stations across the country called A Nation Engaged. It’s a look at economic opportunity and the challenges we all face in getting ahead and improving our lives.