Invest in neighborhoods to jump-start pandemic recovery

City leaders should take advantage of this moment, to invest equitably in neighborhoods, ensure a strong recovery from the pandemic and jump-start thriving communities.

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Chicago skyline as seen from 31st Street Bridge over DuSable Lake Shore Drive.

Chicago skyline as seen from 31st Street Bridge over DuSable Lake Shore Drive.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Consider this a call to action: Chicago residents see racial gaps in wealth and health getting wider, made worse by the perceived unequal distribution of pandemic-related resources.

Among Asian, Black, and Latino residents who responded to a recent survey, 62% reported that their household finances were negatively impacted by the pandemic. By comparison, 45% of white residents reported increased financial hardship.

Across the board, our recent MacArthur/The Harris Poll survey clearly shows Chicagoans are experiencing growing inequality in their communities — leading nearly two-thirds of city residents to consider moving away from the greater Chicago area in the past year.

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MacArthur joined The Harris Poll to survey residents on their perceptions about Chicago’s pandemic- related response and resource allocation. The poll took place in the fourth quarter of 2021, before the Omicron surge, and it captures a city ready to recover.

What we found suggests that city and business leaders can respond to public perception with a redesigned recovery plan that will reduce these historic inequities.

Unequal access to pandemic-related support has likely contributed to the widening health and wealth gaps between white Chicagoans and residents of color. Overall, 38% of residents of color saw their neighborhoods receive less access to resources that would help them weather the pandemic, which has increased the need for resources such as emergency food, mortgage and utility assistance, and loan forgiveness or payment pauses.

Based on similar polling we conducted in June 2021, 17% of white residents needed emergency food aid, compared to 27% of people of color. In the fall, our findings showed that 18% of white residents sought emergency food supplies, compared to 31% of residents of color.

Chicagoans also felt this uneven access at a neighborhood level. The share of residents of color who feel that their neighborhood has successfully handled the COVID-19 pandemic decreased six points — from 78% to 72% — between the time of our two polls. Conversely, white residents’ impressions of their neighborhood’s response efforts improved in the same period, from 84% to 88%.

Overwhelmingly, people identified government support during the pandemic as relevant to their well-being: 80% of residents agree that factors impacting quality of life and life expectancy — like public safety, medical care and quality housing — can be improved with government assistance.

That’s a clear call-to-action for city government agencies and businesses to respond today to ensure that our city’s future is vibrant and diverse.

Opinion Newsletter

Residents identified resources that were lacking in their communities, ranging from entertainment and restaurants to schools and public transit. Lifestyle-focused amenities, like retail and grocery stores, are often popular first steps with businesses and community developers. But what we encourage, and what our polling supports, is a focus on neighborhood fundamentals in communities that have lacked such resources for years. Investing in quality job opportunities, affordable housing, high-quality public schools and well-maintained infrastructure has the potential to make a significant dent in our city’s long-standing inequality.

City leaders should take advantage of this moment, to invest in neighborhoods, ensure a strong recovery from the pandemic and jump-start thriving communities. These investments should account for historic and current disparities, to fully improve the overall quality of life for everyone in our city.

Only 9% of people who reported in our survey that they considered leaving the city actually did so. But city leaders should heed the warning. Make Chicago a place where people want — and can afford — to stay.

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Kristen Mack is managing director of communications and John Palfrey is president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Will Johnson is CEO of The Harris Poll. Mack is a member of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Inc. Board. MacArthur is a supporter of Chicago Public Media, the nonprofit owner of the Sun-Times.

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