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Lightfoot vows to end poverty in Chicago

Lightfoot’s tough-love, Valentine’s Day speech shined a harsh and unforgiving spotlight on a problem, she claims, has been ignored for too long.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot talks to reporters after speaking to the City Club of Chicago.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot talks to reporters after speaking to the City Club of Chicago.
Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Declaring “poverty is killing us,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot vowed Friday to end it in Chicago “in the next generation.”

Lightfoot’s tough-love, Valentine’s Day speech — delivered before a City Club of Chicago audience of movers-and-shakers at the members-only Union League Club — shined a harsh and unforgiving spotlight on a problem, she said, has been ignored for too long.

In fact, she described Chicago as a shrinking city that’s “dying from the inside out” because of decades of deliberate neglect and disinvestment.

How else to explain that one of every five Chicagoans lives below the federal poverty level, one of every 10 lives in “extreme poverty” and 17 percent lack a high school diploma?

“Am I making you uncomfortable? I mean to. Facing these hard truths is not easy. The process is painful. But face it we must,” she said.

“We have our fingerprints all over the impoverished conditions in which so many of our residents languish. We did this … by using government as a tool to create and enforce race-based discrimination. ... We did this by voting for politicians who embraced this ethos and used every tool at their disposal to perpetuate the deprivation and disenfranchisement of people who looked like me.”

David Reifman, who served as former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s planning and development commissioner, took the high road as he hustled out of the speech.

“There’s a lot of work still to do in the neighborhoods, and I appreciate her singular focus on the issue,” he said.

Asked later whether she was referring to Richard J. Daley, Richard M. Daley, Emanuel or all of the above, Lightfoot would only say, “The list is long.” She said her goal is not to “point the finger of blame at any particular person” for a system “created and perpetuated for decades.”

Rather, Lightfoot said she is determined to solve the problem — and use all of the tools at her disposal along with some new ones.

She vowed to introduce a “Tenant Protection Package” that steers clear of rent control but extends the notice period for no-cause evictions beyond 30 days; requires landlords to determine an applicant’s ability to rent before considering prior incarceration history; and gives Woodlawn residents a right of first refusal to buy multi-family buildings.

The mayor demanded more business leaders step up to help bankroll her plan to rebuild 10 neglected South and West Side neighborhoods and that Chicago’s notoriously white trade unions do even more to diversify their ranks and recruit black, Hispanic and women apprentices.

She also wants more vocational training in Chicago Public Schools, calling a career as an electrician or a plumber a ticket to the middle class.

It wasn’t the first time Lightfoot has talked about poverty. She had already called a “poverty summit,” which will be held next week, as a citywide call to arms.

But it was the first time the city’s first African American female and openly gay mayor declared she wants to “end poverty in Chicago in a generation.”

Lightfoot acknowledged some will consider that goal “too big to succeed.”

“Anyone who knows me knows that telling me, `You can’t,’ particularly in the face of righting some wrong, gets me fired up to prove the skeptics wrong,” she said.

“If not me, who? Look at me. Think about my life’s story. I am called to this challenge because if I look away, I am denying a part of myself, a part of my story, my history. ... When I look at this challenge, I think, `There but for the grace of God go I.’”