By: Kristen Mack, John Palfrey, and William Johnson | Crain’s Chicago Business | Sep 20, 2021
There’s a festering sense that others are getting a better deal when it comes to pandemic help, a MacArthur Foundation and Harris Poll survey finds. Chicago has the seeds of a crisis. Here’s how leaders can nip these problems in the bud.
While the pandemic now seems far from over, the questions it has raised around economic equity must be addressed now to set the city up for a brighter post-pandemic future.
The response to the pandemic—and how area residents evaluate it—gives us an opportunity to examine how fairly Chicago distributes resources as well as the city’s direction. The Harris Poll and the MacArthur Foundation recently surveyed roughly 1,000 Chicagoans to better understand residents’ perceptions of pandemic-related resource allocation and local response.
While neighborhood-level response to the pandemic has largely been seen as successful, a majority of city residents (54%) believe their neighborhood has been negatively impacted. Our polling can be used as a benchmark for decision-makers as the city enters the next stage of recovery.
Pandemic stresses and veins of disquiet could signal problems down the road. More than 1 in 5 Chicago-area residents (21%), for example, sought emergency food supplies during the pandemic, a level of food insecurity which recently led Mayor Lori Lightfoot to appoint the city’s first food equity policy lead. Significant numbers of area residents also sought mortgage or utility assistance (15%) and loan forgiveness or payment pauses (15%).
Many Chicago residents cannot shake the sense that their communities are neglected. More than half (52%) said their neighborhoods are overlooked when government agencies, businesses and other groups make local investments. This sense of inferior treatment is reflected by the fact that Chicagoans believe getting financial help during the pandemic—unemployment benefits or mortgage assistance—took more effort here than other U.S. cities.
Another example: Chicago-area residents believe that the cost of living is rising faster in their communities than in others. And while nearly 4 in 5 Chicago-area residents believe city government ought to be responsible for providing resources to communities, only 47% say their neighborhood receives adequate support—and that figure is lower, 42%, among city residents.
A festering sense that others are getting a better deal can corrode a sense of community. If all politics is local, as the aphorism holds, Chicago has the seeds of a crisis.
These problems remain in early stages, however, and our survey also illuminates three solutions local and state leaders can use to nip these problems in the bud.
First, leaders should meet Chicagoans’ where they are, understanding how concerns differ. While the issue most residents say impacts their neighborhoods is public safety (28%), those who live in Chicago are much more likely to cite it (50%) than suburbanites (16%). While city dwellers say safety is the top issue affecting their neighborhood (31%), suburbanites say it’s the struggling economy (15%). One area where everyone agrees: 83% say high property taxes hurt the local economy.
Second, local leaders should understand and apply the right solutions. Across the entire region, residents want more job opportunities (34%); affordable housing (34%); well-maintained infrastructure (29%); entertainment options such as movie theaters (29%) and restaurants (28%); and public safety (27%) in their neighborhoods. In all cases, these were slightly bigger priorities in the city than in the suburbs.
Third, Chicago’s leadership needs to improve its communication on solutions. When we asked about current programs, such as Invest South/West, Chicago Connected and My Chi My Future, fewer than half of residents (43%) had heard of any of them and only 1 in 5 knew what they do. These major social initiatives reach only a fraction of the Chicago area’s population, highlighting an opportunity for local leaders to build trust among residents through civic engagement.
The pandemic has given Chicago a unique moment of self-examination. Now we must act on it.