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From Crisis to Good Trouble: How Chicago’s Neighborhoods are Navigating the Covid Pandemic

September 30, 2020

Experts from five Chicago nonprofit organizations and research institutions convened for a Project Hometown event on September 25 to discuss the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on the health and economy of Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods. While the pandemic has affected everyone, it hasn’t affected everyone equally. Both health and economic outcomes have been more severe for Chicago’s communities of color, panelists described.

Chicago Fed vice president and director of regional research Leslie McGranahan presented data showing how Covid infection and death rates in Chicago vary starkly by race, income, occupation, and neighborhood. For example, rates of infection are more than three times as high among Latinx residents as White residents, while death rates are more than twice as high among Blacks as Whites. Chicago’s neighborhoods with the highest poverty rates are also those with the highest rates of infection and death.

Covid’s disparate impact on health is also reflected in unequal access to testing. Carmelo Barbaro of the University of Chicago’s Poverty Lab showed that neighborhoods with high shares of individuals who lack health insurance have test positivity rates that are 78% higher than the regional average. Communities with high shares of undocumented residents are similarly affected. However, the rate of testing in these areas is not commensurate with the positivity rate, suggesting there are many people with Covid who are not tested. This matters because limited awareness of infections limits the response, which may lead to a quicker spread of the disease in these communities.

It is also important to acknowledge Covid’s impact on mental health, noted Brenda Palms-Barber, president and CEO of the North Lawndale Employment Network. In a survey with the nonprofit’s clients, respondents described being concerned for the safety of their loved ones and fearful of catching Covid themselves, particularly if they worked in an essential job. This situation caused mild depression in many respondents. However, stigma over mental health issues as well as insufficient health insurance meant people weren’t able to get the help they needed.

The economic impacts of the Covid pandemic are similarly concentrated among some groups more than others, the panelists explained. This is evident in patterns of housing instability, as Barbaro pointed out. Within the population of workers whose jobs are vulnerable to pandemic-related shutdowns, 15% of Whites, 19% of Hispanics, and 32% of Blacks are severely rent burdened (they spend more than half their income on rent). In all, Barbaro identified 106,000 severely rent-burdened households in Chicago that had at least one person working in an economically vulnerable industry—a precarious economic position.

Small businesses have also been disproportionately impacted by the current crisis. Darlene Hightower, vice president of Community Health Equity for Rush University Medical Center, reported that a survey of small businesses found that their income had declined by an average of 40%, a huge loss that has resulted in layoffs, furloughs, and ultimately threatens many businesses’ survival. Unfortunately, many of the surveyed businesses were not approved for Paycheck Protection Programs loans, the federal program intended to help small businesses keep their workforces employed during the Covid crisis. The reason, Hightower explained, is that the program relied on established relationships between businesses and banks—a stumbling block for many small businesses on Chicago’s west side, home to some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

Covid’s disparate economic impact has also been exacerbated by a digital gap between White and non-White communities, Palms-Barber observed. Many residents in Chicago’s predominantly Black and Latinx communities lack reliable WiFi, laptops, and smartphones. A report by Kids First found that predominantly Latinx and Black neighborhoods such as Little Village and Austin have the lowest rates of connectivity in the city, added Katya Nuques, executive director at Enlace Chicago. This has particularly grim consequences for students in these communities. As K-12 education may be fully online for as long as 18 months, the gap in educational attainment between White and non-White students will grow, wiping out gains from the last decade, Nuques said.

The disproportionate health and economic harm to Chicago’s Black and Brown communities, panelists agreed, is the result of longstanding poverty and racism. In the Little Village neighborhood served by Enlace Chicago, 34% of residents lack health insurance; in North Lawndale, the poverty rate is 48%. “Disparities in health outcomes and the impact on vulnerable communities is not new,” Hightower stated, noting that long before Covid, Blacks had higher rates of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease than Whites. “The cause is poverty. There is data that shows the wealthier you are, the better health outcomes you have. Covid is just another example of how vulnerable communities are made even more vulnerable when trouble strikes,” she said.

Barbaro concurred. “None of us should be surprised that in a city where 45% of Black children grow up in poverty, and the only way to educate is over WiFi, that black children struggle the most,” he said.

Panelists described how systemic racism also contributes to the uneven impact of Covid’s health and economic crises. Black and Brown voices are consistently underrepresented in decision making in every sector, Nuques said, including government. As a result, the issues that Black and Brown communities face aren’t usually taken into consideration. The federal Paycheck Protection Program is a good example, Barbaro added: The conscious choice to get the loans out quickly rather than equitably meant that some of the program’s requirements disproportionately limited the participation of non-White businesses.

Other government programs suffer from similar institutional barriers. Palms-Barber works with many justice-involved men and women in Chicago, a population that is disproportionately non-White. Even after their involvement with the justice system ends, they are systematically barred from opportunities. As an example, Palms-Barber noted that some formerly incarcerated are not eligible for SNAP, the federal program that provides food assistance.

But the inequities that have burdened our past need not define our future. To conclude the event, moderator Jane Dokko, assistant vice president at the Chicago Fed, asked panelists what gives them hope about Chicago’s prospects for an equitable and inclusive recovery. Nuques and Barbaro noted that this moment of crisis has also been a time of generosity and unity, with an infusion of philanthropic resources to some of Chicago’s hardest-hit neighborhoods. Nonprofit organizations have partnered together to provide vital services to the community, including food pantries and Covid testing.

Unity is also visible in the growing social movements that are calling out racism, Hightower and Palms-Barber said, from young people protesting in the streets to social media hashtags like Say Her Name, taking up John Lewis’s call to get in “good trouble.” Local and state governments seem to be responding to this call, Barbaro said, by more explicitly and frequently incorporating the principle of equity in their decision making. Ultimately, panelists concluded, this should lead to a more equitable future for all.


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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