Chicago Fed Insights

Chicago Community Forum Explores Urban Challenges During Covid-19

July 2, 2020

The Chicago Fed hosted a community forum on Wednesday, July 1, that brought together government, civic, health, and business leaders to share their visions for how Chicago recovers from the Covid-19 crisis and rebuilds its economy. The discussion underscored the urgent need for Chicago to tackle its longstanding challenges of providing equal opportunity (especially in education and jobs), combating racism, and reducing wealth inequality as part of the city’s response to the pandemic.

The forum is the first in a series of events the Chicago Fed is hosting as part of Project Hometown, a new initiative to engage all communities in the region as they confront long-term and newly emerging challenges. Project Hometown brings together civic leaders, expert researchers, Chicago Fed staff, and concerned residents. Through these diverse perspectives, the Chicago Fed will examine how the region’s cities and towns can recover from the pandemic, overcome longstanding inequities, grow stronger, and provide all people with the opportunity to thrive.

Wednesday’s conversation, moderated by Chicago Fed President and CEO Charlie Evans, examined the disproportionate impact of the pandemic across Chicago on people of color, longstanding racial inequality underscored by recent demonstrations, and how these dynamics are critical in shaping Chicago’s recovery.

The event featured the following panelists:

  • Allison Arwady, Commissioner, Chicago Department of Public Health
  • Helene Gayle, CEO, Chicago Community Trust and Chicago Fed Board Member
  • Samir Mayekar, Chicago Deputy Mayor, Neighborhood and Economic Development
  • Jennifer Scanlon, Chair, Commercial Club Chair, and CEO, UL

Evans began the conversation by noting the unprecedented nature of recent events and the challenges Chicago and the nation face.

“This is a time for all policymakers to think big and be creative. And with the support of the U.S. Treasury, our Federal Reserve credit programs have indeed aimed high,” Evans said. “Still,” he noted, “our financial policy tools are unable to address many foundational elements of the systemic inequities that we have seen laid bare by this crisis.”

While focusing on the pandemic, panelists highlighted how Covid-19 also underscored Chicago’s historic struggles with inequality. Dr. Arwady cited the Chicago racial life expectancy gap, explaining that even before the pandemic, Black Chicagoans lived on average 8.8 years less than other residents–driving what Mayekar observed is one of the largest life expectancy gaps between neighborhoods in any city.

“So when I think about what comes after Covid, it's about taking what we've seen from Covid, this conversation that has started, and using that work to think about long term in Chicago, how can we create healthier communities for all,” Dr. Arwady said.

The speakers discussed multiple efforts underway across Chicago to respond to challenges that span public health, the economy, and racial inequality.

“There are many elements of this crisis that we need to use as a catalyst to really think about the future of Chicago and its rightful place as a global city,” Scanlon said.

Dr. Gayle emphasized the Community Trust’s effort to marshal private-sector and philanthropic investments to close racial and ethnic wealth gaps.

“We know that we have problems with violence, lack of access to education, et cetera—but underneath all of those is this wealth inequality. … If we don't have an impact on increasing economic equity among our Black and Latinx communities that make up two-thirds of our population, we aren't going to be able to move forward our region overall,” she said.

Mayekar described a city that benefits from a strong workforce, availability of land and a relatively low cost of living, compared with coastal peers. But he said that addressing racial and other inequities was vital and called for corporations to partner with city government to invest and create jobs in the city’s south and west sides.

“We need to address the trauma, both new and old in our city. … How do we expand economic opportunity for more Chicagoans? How do we really promote Black and Brown small business especially to make this a thriving environment for them to grow and pilot new types of social safety net mechanisms?” Mayekar said.

Evans closed the session with a reminder to the audience to continue to protect public health while participating in the life of the city: “Participate, venture out, respond the way that we were taught in civics class, hopefully. Listen to more people. Wear your face coverings, be safe.”

To watch the event or to read the full transcript, visit the Chicago Forum page.


The views expressed in this post are our own and do not reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago or the Federal Reserve System.

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