Many trace the Southland’s decline back to when steel mills, large factories and other major employers began closing more than 50 years ago.
Until then, the south suburbs seemed like a great place to live, work and raise a family. The loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs had a ripple effect. Unemployment affected retail businesses. Stores closed from Park Forest to Calumet City.
The loss of businesses affected the tax base. The burden to fund schools and other services gradually shifted more and more to homeowners. Property tax rates climbed to the oppressive levels we see today.
All the Southland’s problems are interconnected. High rates of violent crime are directly related to a lack of economic opportunities. Abandoned buildings, declines in municipal services and struggles to maintain quality education and health care can all be linked to the loss of good-paying jobs.
Leaders in government and the business community identified this dynamic years ago and have worked to solve problems. Some measures, such as granting tax incentives to private employers and investing public funds in infrastructure, have paid modest dividends.
Collective efforts may have reversed the downward spiral, but overall the Southland has a ways to go to reclaim its former glory. The region needs a big project like the proposed South Suburban Airport to turbocharge the recovery by creating jobs and growing the tax base.
That was a key takeaway from this week’s panel discussion, “Vision 2030: Improving Life in the Southland” Monday evening at South Suburban College’s main campus in South Holland.
“Property taxes, education funding, business retention, all of these things are connected,” State Rep. Debbie Meyers-Martin, D-Matteson, told an audience of about 50 people.
Race is the subtext that accounts for wealth disparity and segregation between white and black communities in Chicago’s south and southwest suburbs.
“The Constitution treats African Americans as three-fifths of a person,” said Rick Bryant, senior aide to US Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Matteson.
Our historical focus on the racial aspect of American slavery tends to overlook the lasting effects of how the wealthy exploited free labor for economic gain. Bryant told the audience about how he wrote a report as a schoolboy in the 1960s and discovered that for every $5 earned by whites, Blacks were paid $3 for the same work. Bryant cited a 2019 study that reached an identical conclusion about racial disparities in wages.
“Not a whole lot of progress has been made since the Founding Fathers crafted the Constitution,” he said.
There seems to be a thread throughout American history in which upper class whites of European descent are determined to prevent Blacks of African descent from making any gains.
How often have Black families achieved success and earned enough to buy a home in an exclusively white neighborhood only to have it burned to the ground while firefighters stood by and watched?
How many public schools have closed rather than comply with federal demands that they admit Black students, as white families enroll their children in private schools instead?
How many predominantly Black communities in the Southland have suffered for decades because the tax base collapsed and public schools were deprived of resources because the state ignores its constitutional obligation to fund at least 50% of public education?
That’s because many of the 118 members of the Illinois House of Representatives represent white folks who are outraged by the thought of paying taxes to help people of color in the Southland.
“The state should be picking up more of the burden for education funding,” Meyers-Martin said.
That’s impossible, she said, because a majority of those 118 House members would never agree to a measure that would make white homeowners in other parts of the state pay higher taxes to fund public schools in Harvey, Robbins or Ford Heights.
“We’re not going to change,” she said. “You’re not going to get 60 votes.”
Since state lawmakers won’t correct the inequities, the only other viable fix is economic development. That’s why the proposed South Suburban Airport is the region’s best chance to address decades of systemic inequality.
Bryant has been a leading point person for the airport for many years. He has noted how since O’Hare International Airport opened in the 1950s, more than 100,000 jobs have shifted from the south suburbs to the north and west suburbs.
“An airport is an economic magnet,” Bryant told Monday’s audience.
Multiple studies have reached similar conclusions about how the airport would attract billions of dollars in private business investment, create tens of thousands of good-paying jobs and generate tens of millions of dollars every year in new tax revenue.
But there are powerful forces that want to deprive the south suburbs of opportunities to succeed.
“There is a lot of misinformation about the airport,” Bryant said. “We’re not taking anything away from anybody.”
Unless a large-scale project like the airport creates jobs and economic opportunities that would address racial and wealth disparities, people in the Southland will continue to be taxed out of their homes.
“I’m not really solving a problem,” said Rich Township Assessor Sam Brown, describing how he helps people file property tax appeals. “I’m putting a Band-Aid on a problem that’s not going away. There’s something inherently wrong with that, to me.”
About 70% of the typical property tax bill is used to fund local public schools, Brown said. The Southland lacks sufficient numbers of commercial and industrial developments to ease the tax burden on homeowners.
“My view is that the education of children is the responsibility of society as a whole,” Brown said. “We need to spread the burden of how we fund education way beyond what we’re doing currently.”
News updates from the south suburbs delivered every Monday and Wednesday
A graduated income tax would help, but voters in 2020 rejected the “fair tax” proposal to amend the Illinois Constitution and allow the state to impose higher income tax rates on higher income levels.
The state could expand sales taxes to include such services as styling hair and mowing lawns, he said.
“There would be a ton of pushback,” Brown said. “There are some very powerful forces that have a great interest in maintaining the status quo.”
The best way for people in the Southland to help themselves is to vote, he said.
“We have lousy turnouts in our area,” Brown said. “To beat them, we have to unify. Solutions have been out there for years. In the meantime, go ahead and appeal your property taxes.”
Ted Slowik is a columnist for the Daily Southtown.