It’s Not Just the Jobs, is It?
By Patrick F. Cannon
In Chicago’s recent mayoral election, the numerous candidates were almost unanimous in their call for “more development and jobs in the neighborhoods” (by which they meant the south and west sides, not Lincoln Park). One hears this so often that it has taken on the force of unarguable fact. I guess the idea is that no one should have to leave their neighborhood to go to work.
Really? Looking back on my own work life (I’m retired from any activity that actually makes money), I counted 11 jobs. Only two – setting pins at the McKeesport (PA) Elks Club bowling alley and working at Al “The Meat Man’s” grocery store – could I reach by walking. In both cases, that walk was from one end of town to the other, about three miles. I could have taken the streetcar, but even the 10-cent fare was a stretch when you’re making 50 cents an hour. Every other job – amusement park, steel mill, railroad and various offices – required either public transportation or private car.
I do realize that some people actually can walk to work, but the majority can’t. In Chicago, some drive, but most take public transportation. The CTA and Metra may not be perfect, but they do a pretty good job of getting people around the city and in and out of the suburbs. And the CTA fare of $2.50 is actually equivalent to the 25 cents I paid in getting to my first downtown Chicago job.
So, isn’t any job you can get to more or less conveniently a good job? And while the economy isn’t always as strong as it is now, Chicago’s unemployment rate is 4.1 percent, about as low as it’s likely to get. If a person is qualified by education and/or experience, he or she – regardless of race or ethnicity – is likely to find a job if they are actively looking for one. And even if it’s a minimum wage job (as of July 1, that will be $13 per hour in Chicago and $12 in Cook County), it will be bolstered by safety-net programs like Medicaid and food and housing assistance, among others.
Chicago’s “jobs” problem is more related to the people – mostly young black men – who aren’t really in the job market, either because they didn’t finish their education, or because they’re involved with gangs, whose main livelihood is the drug trade. Although it went up by two percent at last count, the graduation rate for black males in 64.7 percent. If you want to see where the 35 percent who don’t have a high school diploma – the minimum requirement for a decent job – are, just take a drive through the west side and you’ll see them hanging out on street corners as part of the “open air” drug trade.
I routinely drive through that west side, and occasionally through south side neighborhoods like Englewood, where the murder rates are the highest. I can tell you that there are vast stretches of vacant land in both. Yet, when former President Obama chose a site for his presidential “center”, did he choose to spur development of an underserved neighborhood by locating it in Englewood near the terminus of the Green Line El? Of course not; he chose a public park near the safer Hyde Park.
(Obama, as imperious and above the fray as always, has been criticized for not signing a binding agreement to provide jobs and contracts to the “community,” proving once again that, in Chicago, no good deed goes unpunished.)
Lame duck Chicago mayor Emanuel has been justly proud of luring corporate headquarters to Chicago. When McDonalds discovered that potential employees no longer wanted to trek to Oak Brook, did they choose to build on almost free land in one of the neighborhoods? Of course not. Instead, they bought an existing building in the increasingly expensive near west side, tore it down and built it in a difficult, congested area. They did so because they knew potential employees would be willing to go there.
If the city has any financial resources to spare, I would suggest they devote them to finding ways to reclaim the lost boys who are plaguing the neighborhoods that fearful African-American families who can are leaving as quickly as they can. A good way to start would be to stop dredging up the past to excuse the present.
Copyright 2019, Patrick F. Cannon