The following was written by Dick Simpson, former Chicago alderman and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
American cities and metropolitan regions are in crisis. Suburbs as well as inner cities.
At Operation PUSH’s International Convention on July 7th, scholars, pubic officials, civil rights leaders, and citizens met to hammer out a new urban and metropolitan agenda to meet this crisis. There has not been a national urban agenda since the Carter administration three decades ago. The Office of Urban Affairs that President Obama opened when he went to the White House has been impotent.
Consider the magnitude of our urban problems. 500 hospitals have closed in the last two decades while three out of four urban emergency rooms are at or over capacity. Our health is at stake.
Not only is Chicago closing 50 public schools but in 2010 public school districts across the country closed 1,929 schools. Charter and private schools are growing instead. Meanwhile, college student loan debts exceed $1 trillion; the average graduating student owes $27,000. Our education system is failing.
There are more African-American adult males in prison, jail, or on parole than were enslaved in 1850 before the Civil War. Prisons have been privatized and we have a now prison-industrial complex housing too many of our residents.
Since 2008, the federal government has closed 269 banks, 41 in the Chicago metropolitan area alone. Our economy is in jeopardy and recovery from the Great Recession is slow. In our 25 largest metropolitan areas, less than 55% of black men are employed and Latinos are often employed in below minimum wage jobs. Young white men too are often unemployed and underemployed. No wonder people speak of the “lost generation.”
In Chicago alone there are 62,000 foreclosed and vacant properties with 80,000 more foreclosure filings in court. We have a major housing crisis.
Citizens in our neighborhoods are prevented from meaningful participation in governing their own communities. Public corruption squanders scarce taxpayer resources, costing at least $500 million a year in a “corruption tax” on Illinois taxpayers.
Our metropolitan region lacks coordinated governance with 540 separate governments with the power to tax in Cook County alone.
There are practical solutions to each of these problems. Scholars, activists, and politicians began to hammer out a common agenda of remedies at Operation PUSH. But actually solving these massive problems requires three steps:
First, we have to recognize the problems and their severity. Second, we have to agree on a common agenda. Third, we have to mobilize political support to overcome the political stalemate in Washington and Springfield. People in urban neighborhoods and suburban communities must push in the same direction together. That will require reaching across racial, ideological, and geographical divisions.
When a hurricane, tornado, or terrorist bombing occurs, Americans come together to rebuild. Federal, state, and local governments work together in a crisis. If some officials don’t, they are held accountable and new officials are elected.
We have a metropolitan crisis worse than a natural disaster. We need a metropolitan response adequate to the problems. So we need to begin demanding governments and the private sector to act. But they won’t until we have an agreed plan of action covering all aspects of the problem – housing, the economy, education, jobs, crime, infrastructure, governance and all the rest.
This fall Operation PUSH will issue a draft metropolitan agenda and citizens in all our neighborhoods will have a chance to refine it and change it. In next year’s elections, any candidate who isn’t willing to pledge help in solving our problems won’t get our vote. Doing nothing and political stalemates are no longer an option.
At a meeting at the White House years ago, liberals were pressing President Franklin Roosevelt to act on the nation’s continuing problems. He agreed with their recommendations but said to them, “Now, go out and make me do it.”
President Obama, Governor Quinn, and Mayor Emanuel might agree with what we think needs to be done but we have to go out and mobilize our neighborhoods to give them the political backing to get things done. We have to make them do it.
Image: AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh