CHICAGO — For the past five years, household incomes in Chicago have been on the rise, and fewer people have been experiencing extreme economic hardship. Yet even as the needle edges slightly forward, 22 percent of Chicagoans still live in conditions of poverty, according to census data.
In a new initiative set to launch Thursday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot will take on an approach to poverty in Chicago that doesn’t shy away from Chicago’s generational, systemic and racial causes of hardship. The plan to end poverty in a generation will be unveiled at the Solutions Toward Ending Poverty (STEP) Summit Thursday at the Isadore and Sadie Dorin Forum, 25 W. Roosevelt Road.
The summit will bring together policymakers, artists, employers, nonprofit and neighborhood leaders to examine what it means to be in poverty and to analyze the history of how the city got to where it is today. From there, leaders will begin to develop a coordinated agenda for reducing and eventually eliminating poverty in Chicago.
Though Thursday’s summit on the University of Illinois at Chicago campus is invitation-only, the event aims to be a starting point for the program, with ongoing engagement planned in other parts of the city.
About 22 percent of Chicagoans fall below the Federal Poverty Level, which is an annual income of $26,200 for a family of four, according to federal guidelines.
But the story told by poverty statistics and the people trapped inside its grip is an incomplete one. Rather, poverty in Chicago is entrenched in a racialized history of the city’s businesses, policies, justice system and social infrastructure.
“We did this historically by using government as a tool to create and enforce race-based discrimination that killed, crushed, and systematically reduced the lives of too many over generations,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at a Friday press conference in a pledge to erase generational poverty.
After the summit, the city will spearhead a cross-sector movement designed to bridge the silos between the work already being done to address poverty, and to engage communities most impacted by economic hardship to drive forward solutions.
Those solutions won’t only be policy-driven ones, said Dan Lurie, Lightfoot’s policy director who is taking the lead on the mayor’s poverty agenda.
“This is a big, longterm effort to reposition how government is going to be partnering with and benefiting communities, and ultimately that all towards a very different version of economic growth,” Lurie said.
Lurie said the push to end poverty will be designed to “meet people where they are,” taking things a step further than the common-sense policy changes that the mayor’s office is already making headway on, like raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2020 and ending the practice of taking people’s driver’s licenses for nonmoving violations. That will also mean sitting down with folks across the city, in particular places like the West Side, “where mayor’s offices have not engaged in the past at this level,” Lurie said.
“We want to really figure this out in partnership with residents, in partnership with people on the ground doing this work who are helping, these nonprofits, the social service agencies, leaders, advocates, artists. People who understand how Chicago works, and have never really had a chance to engage with the city to decide what the collective here could be,” Lurie said.
The summit itself will feature a series of panels, breakout sessions and a keynote address from Dr. Michael McAfee, the head of economic and social equity think tank Policy Link. The first panel, moderated by UIC history professor and Elizabeth Todd-Breland, will take stock of Chicago’s unique history and how it shaped the state of poverty in the city today. A second panel, moderated by the Urban Institute’s Chief Innovation Officer Erika Poethig, will examine policy agendas for addressing poverty that have been successful in cities across the country.
A closing session of the summit will feature Lightfoot in a candid conversation about the legacy of poverty in Chicago with Darryl Holliday, editorial director of civic media lab City Bureau.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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