Memo to Mayor Emanuel: System needs fixing, not the kids

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s second inaugural address focused on Chicago children in poverty, values, and bad choices.

More than a quarter of Chicago’s children live in poverty. Twenty thousand public school students are homeless. And it’s true that their poverty conditions are a result of bad decisions, poor values. However, the mayor neglected to mention that it was not the supposedly poor values of these children and their parents that created this poverty. No, it was corporate decisions and pro-corporate government policies that led our city’s children to this human catastrophe.

The real cause of child poverty

Thirty years ago, I was one of tens of thousands of Steelworkers – white, black, and brown – living on Chicago’s south side. We worked hard, making a decent living, making a product that our nation needed; our children grew up in vibrant neighborhoods with confidence in a future, and a sparkle in their eyes. Then our jobs and the futures of our communities’ children – especially African American and Latino children – were swept away in a tidal wave of plant closings.

Who made those decisions? What were their values? It was the set of values of corporate investors, who decreed that it was worth it to wipe us out to make a higher rate of profit overseas. Good choices for them, bad choices for the kids. Those devastating bad choices were made on Wall Street and LaSalle Street, not on 79th Street. Why do the millionaires who cashed in on these bad choices get to lecture the victims?

I guess that’s why the way Emanuel addressed children in poverty in his inaugural address rubs me the wrong way, even though his speech seems well-meaning. In sympathetic terms, he describes the impact of poverty on youth. He says he wants to shine a light on “preventing another lost generation of our city’s youth. We all know who they are … Many are born into poverty. Many come from broken homes. And many have been on their own from early on. As a result, many of them drop out of school and are jobless. Many of them lack the spark of hope in their eyes that we would never accept in our own children.”

Emanuel goes on to promote some very good programs that direct resources to these children and their communities. He cites the example of a good Samaritan who raised the money to pay for dental surgery so a young man could smile again. 

But doesn’t a mayor need to go beyond charity and mentoring to address a systemic problem? He mentions values five times, once to thank his parents (a backhanded way of congratulating himself) for giving him good values, and four times to imply that poor children would benefit by having people like himself share their values.

Is poverty about values or money?

Emanuel mentions jobs only once. So, I’d like to ask, “Is the issue of poverty one of values or is it one of money?” Rich people seem to always want to teach poor people values, while they hang on to the money.

He’s talking about teaching young people to cope with poverty. Shouldn’t our mayor be talking about ending it?

There are solutions to poverty, but they’re bold ones and they involve focusing on fixing the system that creates the poverty, not fixing the kids.

The money is there.

Chicago is still one of the wealthiest cities in the richest nation in the history of humanity. Its fiscal crisis is not the result of lack of wealth. It is the result of deliberate policies that withhold the wealth from the people who created it. That is where the talk of values should be focused.

A tax on stock transactions could generate enough money to put the young people he feels so strongly about on jobs like teacher assistants, in healthcare fields, housing renovation, all with a job training component. I predict that a good paying summer job learning a valuable skill would put the sparkle in most kids’ eyes.

A mayor truly concerned with the poverty of children must speak for the whole population of the city, not just the investor class he comes from. He must address the root cause of that poverty. Instead of corporate subsidies, how about directing revenues to direct job creating programs that pay above poverty wages, including summer jobs? For example, wouldn’t the $10 million subsidy from Chicago taxpayers given to build a new Hyatt hotel in Hyde Park have done more good funding 2,000 summer jobs for teens in the same neighborhood? And how about raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour this year, not five years from now.

Who is the mentor?

When it comes to mentorship, I think the mayor should also start a program for some of his corporate colleagues. Let them study under a mom who starts her day before dawn, hustling onto a bus with her sleepy-eyed toddler in tow to an inadequate day care situation and then shuttling between two or more minimum wage job, fielding homefront crises from her cell phone without a prayer of putting a nutritious meal on the table for her kids after school. Let them learn about values from her sacrifices for her family.

Let’s think about the mayor’s values too, especially when he has closed 50 schools, and left scores of other schools without libraries, sports, music and athletic programs. What kind of system of values welcomes for-profit corporations to soak up millions of tax dollars designated for education? Who can mentor the mayor on the value that most working class families treasure: children are more important than profits!

I’m sure the mayor practices this value when it comes to his family. His kids attend a private school where standardized testing is shunned. There’s a teacher student ratio of 10 to one, with 13 science labs, four art studios, a five-lane pool, 19 Advanced Placement classes, four computer labs, a dance studio and three libraries. I guess such a school would be enough to put a sparkle in the eyes of any kid.

I agree with the mayor that it is not the job of government to teach values. It is the role of government to act on our values.

Let’s do it, Mr. Mayor.

Photo: Chicago Public School children and parents. Progress Illinois




Roberta Wood
Roberta Wood

Roberta Wood is a retired member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Coalition of Labor Union Women. Wood was a steelworker in South Chicago, an officer of Steelworkers Local 65, and founding co-chair of the USWA District 31 Women's Caucus. She was previously Secretary-Treasurer of the Communist Party. Currently, she serves as a Senior Editor of People's World.