What does economic and racial equity look like in Chicago? What if the city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents were not saddled with debt to the city, and had the same pathways to financial stability and economic advancement as other Chicago residents?
Stakeholders from academia, philanthropy and community activism answered those questions at a panel discussion on Tuesday, June 11, hosted by the University’s Office of Civic Engagement and the City Club of Chicago—the second in a series of events. “Advancing Economic Equity for all Chicago,” was inspired by the Chicago Fines, Fees and Access Collaborative, a task force convened by the Chicago City Clerk’s Office charged with exploring disparities in ticketing and debt-collection practices affecting Chicago’s lower-income and predominantly minority communities.
The School of Social Service Administration (SSA) led efforts on behalf of the University to advise and support the Collaborative, which was convened in December 2018, and on Tuesday revealed an initial set of 14 policy reforms and proposals for more equitable fee structures designed to benefit Chicagoans most adversely impacted by the current system.
An in-depth report published by Pro Publica Illinois and WBEZ in 2018 showed that Chicago leads the nation in Chapter 13 bankruptcies triggered by ticket debt. Automated red-light and speed camera tickets, as well as unpaid parking tickets and added fines, also has resulted in license suspensions and vehicle seizures. The report also found tickets for city sticker violations were disproportionately issued in majority Black neighborhoods, resulting in millions of dollars of debt.
“We wanted to create immediate, as well as lasting transformational change to the current systems, to strike the right balance between equitable practices and compliance,” Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia said.
In addition to Clerk Valencia, panelists included Helene Gayle, CEO of The Chicago Community Trust, community activist Rosazlia Grillier, and Damon Jones, an associate professor at the University’s Harris School of Public Policy.
“We know that with the right mix of leadership, vision and research, that we can transform communities and entire cities,” said SSA Dean Deborah Gorman-Smith at the event. “And success is possible when leaders, policy makers and committed communities work together to make systemic change.”
The panelists agreed access to affordable housing, quality education, fresh food and healthcare, among other needs, can improve racial and economic equity in Chicago.
Gayle referenced a recent NYU School of Medicine study estimating a 30-year life expectancy gap between Streeterville and Englewood residents.
“That’s not about medical care, that’s about equity,” Gayle said. “There’s a lot we can do with programs. But at the end of the day it’s policies that are going to change this. Bad public policy got us to where we are today and it’s only by having good public policy that we’re going to make the kinds of changes, systemic changes, that are really going to make a difference.”
Community activist Grillier said community input on proposed policy and program changes is pivotal to advancing equity.
“We have to stop making decisions about communities and we have to listen and build relationships with the folks in the community,” Grillier said. “If you don’t have the community voice there it’s not going to work. But if we can come together and listen to each other and build those relationships, success is imminent.”
As a lead academic partner to the Collaborative, SSA supported the research, data collection and analysis, and policy recommendations that went into the report. SSA and Loyola University Chicago students participated in public forums sponsored by the Clerk’s office, gathering and analyzing residents’ feedback. Faculty and students from SSA, the Harris School of Public Policy and the Booth School of Business also provided advice and research, including an analysis of the City’s parking- and red-light ticket data, and policy recommendations on how best to restructure city sticker payments.
Ultimately, the panelists agreed, there must be collective optimism to help bridge the gap. In response to a question framed as all Chicagoans needing to “suffer” to achieve economic equity for all, Jones said: “I would think about the framing differently. Everybody can share in the prosperity that can happen if we have a healthy city, uniformly, throughout all the different neighborhoods."
By Sabrina L. Miller