There are many Chicagos.
Englewood and Streeterville have almost nothing in common. Lincoln Park and Rogers Park might as well be separate suburbs. Humbolt Park and Jefferson Park might as well be in different countries. Chatham and Roseland share little resemblance to the Gold Coat or Wrigleyville. Yet they are all part of Chicago.
Trying to throw all of these communities into one pot and define it as either joyful or miserable is an impossible goal.
Forbes Magazine staffers took a crack at tackling this impossibility by looking at 10 factors for the 200 largest metro areas and divisions in the U.S. to compile their misery index. Measurable factors such as violent crime, unemployment, foreclosures, taxes (income and property) and home values were considered along with less measurable data like the impact of political corruption, long commutes, bad weather and the quality of the local professional sports franchises.
I was disappointed that Forbes left off critical data such as the access to quality education for children under age 18, poverty and homelessness rates and the efficiency of local government services. Why would a misery index leave off three categories that are likely to determine if you have a bright future? Education, poverty and the quality of local governments are often defining factors in whether urban dwellers are optimistic for their future or not.
These omissions not-withstanding, Forbes’s list is a fair attempt at measuring how the common man or woman would fair in several American urban settings.
I define the common man or woman as a person who is average in every sense of the word. They are age 25 – 45, make $50,000 per year or less, have achieved either a college degree or are on their way to one, and primarily seek to work 9am -5pm jobs or start a small community based business.
For this group of commoners, Chicago is a place full of serious obstacles.
Our deeply segregated school system is the biggest hindrance to progress in Chicago and thus the primary source of misery for people in Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods.
However, Forbes’s list does not allow us to use schools as an measure of misery so let’s focus on their factors instead.
Violent crime, unemployment, and home values go together. These three factors are inseparable. Black, Hispanic and first generation immigrant communities within the city have the highest rates of violent crime, unemployment and foreclosures. As a result, home values are low in these areas, with a glut of supply and a total lack of demand. However, in some parts of the city, including it’s immediate downtown, unemployment is stunningly low, violent crime is isolated, and property values are relatively good. Caucasians tend to dominate the demographics of those communities.
Over-taxation stifles wealth creation and decreases savings rates among the poor and middle class. Illinois is particularly cruel with it’s 5 percent flat income tax rate and minimal deductions. Even an individual making a mere $25K per year will pay nearly $1,200 in state income taxes. Since most middle income workers are also subject to federal FICA taxes, this 5 percent chunk comes on top of the 7.65 percent mandatory federal entitlement program contributions.
The combination of state, county and municipal sales taxes subject common purchases to an additional 9.25 percent minimum sales tax.
Chicago has more than 20 standard taxes and fees on everything from utility bills to vehicle rentals.
Independent realtor groups acknowledge that Cook County has among the highest per square foot property tax rates of any urban county in America.
These tax rates make saving difficult for the lower income population of the city. Even routine purchases land many Chicagoans in unsustainable credit card debt, which certainly adds to anyone’s misery.
Taxes are only as good as what they pay for. In Chicago, city workers live pretty well, but those they serve get inefficient and uneven city services.
The snow plows run regularly on the near north side in January, but ask the people who live on side streets in South Chicago how often a plow comes by.
The city picks up trash everywhere on a timely schedule, but thanks to a new policy, some 9-1-1 calls will be essentially ignored and even fairly serious crimes won’t get an immediate response.
Streets do get paved in Chicago and trees get trimmed. However, banks of street lights regularly falter in poor neighborhoods of Chicago, only to get a temporary fix before going out again.
Chicago’s public transit system is fairly sophisticated, yet it has only been in the last couple years that train tracks have been repaired to eliminate vast slow zones, new buses have replaced old clunkers prone to break-downs and transit stations are finally getting basic repairs. $2.25 a ride is not a bad deal, but the time it takes to commute anywhere on Chicago’s busy rush hours streets makes you pay in a different way.
If you are a driver, good luck. City residents are subject to a $57 – $300 vehicle sticker charge, $20 annual state license plate sticker fee, $3+ per hour downtown parking meters, red light cameras calibrated to trap drivers into getting tickets with fast yellow lights and a proposal to add speed cameras all over the city to help the city issue even more tickets.
Forbes included political corruption as part of the equation. I don’t know how they assigned a number to this, but Chicago is internationally known for it’s unique brand of all-encompassing political corruption. We live in a state where the two previous governors are convicted felons, one current state lawmaker is alleged to have taken a bride within months of being elected and a high ranking Congressman just resigned and admitted that he and his wife (who was a city council alderman) committed crimes against the public trust.
Oh, did I mention that nothing got approved in Chicago for 50 years unless one guy paid another guy an unspecified amount of money?
And the Speaker of the Illinois State House runs a law firm who’s specialty is property tax appeals for big political donors? And the Cook County Democratic Party chairman is also in charge of Property Tax Assessments…and he answers to the Speaker of the Illinois House?
Chicago and Illinois are so corrupt that even honest citizens entering politics don’t know where to begin trying to change the culture of criminal behavior.
Governmental malfeasance and corruption hurts the poor and common people the most. Those with power and money pay their way through the system. Those without either are trampled over, and how miserable is it to be treated like dirt by those elected to serve you?
So it is easy to see how miserable it is to live in Chicago for the common person. Is it that much worse than other American cities? I will leave that to more experienced travelers to debate.
If you have been fortunate enough to be born into relative peace, prosperity and opportunity here in Chicago, it is a truly world class town. An experienced banker or lawyer can easily earn $200,000 a year at a nationally recognized firm. Their stature and wealth will allow them to enjoy all that Chicago has to offer. Their homes will be luxurious, their neighborhoods safe, their children will receive a world class secondary education from either selective enrollment public school or a respected private institution, and their influence will allow them to easily overcome any political corruption that gets in the way of their endeavors. Chicago’s expensive entertainment and nightlife scene is fantastic.
Misery in Chicago is spread unevenly.
For some, Chicago is a place of absolute bliss. For others, it is a place of bottomless misery. For most, it is a metaphorical swamp, not unlike the physical one that predated human settlement here. Taking a step forward in a swamp is very hard, tiring and requires great effort. So is improving your quality of life in Chicago.
It doesn’t have to be this way for anyone. Much of what makes Chicago miserable for the common person, according to the Forbes data, is man-made and preventable. Better leaders and better public policies would rapidly improve the quality of life for tens of thousands of struggling Chicagoans.
There is very little we can do about the weather. Perhaps climate change will take care of that for us.
There is even less we can do about the Cubs.
Sadly, their misery is simply a permanent reality of Chicago life. We can’t make them winners anymore than we can move the lake. We just have to live with that one.
But there is something we can do about our leaders and public policy.
We had a hand in creating Chicago’s pockets of misery. We have the power to turn them around.