Collaborating to Confront Suburban Poverty in Metro Chicago

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  • October 18, 2013

To help tell the story of growing suburban poverty, we often turn to the Chicago region—both in our recent book and as Alan and I travel to different places to talk about its findings and recommendations. For one, the region stands as a striking example of how and why the geography of poverty has changed in recent years. During the 2000s, the number of poor residents in Chicago’s suburbs almost doubled, growing by 93 percent compared to an increase in the urban poor population of 16 percent. In 2000, only 39 percent of the region’s poor population lived outside the primary cities of Chicago, Joliet, and Naperville. By 2012, that share had risen to 52 percent. A weak regional economy, shifting populations and demographics, and the after-effects of the housing crisis helped tip the balance, so that for the first time more poor residents now live outside the city of Chicago than in it.

But we also feature metro Chicago in the book because of the number of promising models and strategies that have emerged to grapple with the increasingly regional reach of poverty. In particular, “collaboration” has become a key word and guiding principle in a region plagued by extensive fragmentation, where “the suburbs” encompass hundreds of municipalities, townships, and school districts that overlap in complex ways across the 14 counties that make up the metropolitan statistical area.

Working with our colleagues at BRicK Partners, we recently traveled to the Chicago region to discuss the book’s findings with local stakeholders. It was clear from our meetings with elected officials, funders, and practitioners, and from the half-day forum we participated in at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, that interjurisdictional  collaborative approaches like the ones that emerged in West and South Cook County following the housing crisis have gained attention and momentum in the region, garnering support from local, state, and federal officials.  Our host from the Federal Reserve Bank, Valerie Van Meter of the Corporate Social Responsibility Division, articulated the frame that has helped municipal leaders make the case for cooperation: confronting suburban poverty at the right scale today is essential to cultivating the competitive workforce of tomorrow. Reflecting on what the collaboratives have been able to accomplish in the few short years since they formed, Park Forest Mayor John Ostenburg and others noted how their work across borders has leveraged the creation of a Land Bank, Transit-Oriented Development funds, and greater efficiencies for the private sector developers and banks.

As the work of the collaboratives has evolved, Cook County has become an important partner. Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle underscored her administration’s ongoing support of the suburban collaboratives during her remarks at the Federal Reserve event, and Cook County Bureau of Economic Development Chief Herman Brewer echoed her endorsement later in the day, as he outlined ways in which the county’s forthcoming strategic plan will focus on coordinating federal resources to better encourage and support municipal collaboratives.

During that discussion, Jeannette Tamayo, Regional Director of the U.S. Economic Development Administration, reinforced the importance of collaboration in addressing the needs of distressed communities, not just across jurisdictions but also across federal agencies. Her agency is one of 12 federal agencies working together in a 21-county region that spans three states—Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin—to better leverage place-based federal investments in ways that improve outcomes for struggling communities and their residents. The panel conversation helped frame this partnership as an opportunity for federal agencies to not only break down programmatic silos, but also to act in support of the emerging county and state efforts to better coordinate resources and support more scaled and cross-jurisdictional approaches.

Building sub-regional collaboration in metro Chicago has been a long and complicated process, and one that is ongoing and iterative (to paraphrase Nancy Fishman, Executive Director of the Grand Victoria Foundation). Even as opportunities arise to expand on these collaboratives—by replicating them in other parts of the region or by linking in partners in human services and education—these models also continue to grapple with questions of capacity and long-term sustainability. But metro Chicago also has a deep bench of regional quarterbacks that can help navigate those challenges and develop more effective solutions for responding to today’s geography of poverty and opportunity.  In doing so, the region has the chance to be a leading model for metro areas across the country as they look for ways to overcome the jurisdictional and programmatic fragmentation that often complicate more effective and scaled responses to regionalizing poverty.

Elizabeth Kneebone

Presentation from Chicago:

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