Chicago Community Trust’s outgoing CEO wants the city to think big to close the growing wealth gap between black and white Chicagoans
The wealth gap between black and white Chicagoans is widening, and “big programs” are needed to close it.
It’s parting advice from someone in a unique position to know what Chicago needs to solve one of its thorniest challenges.
For five years as CEO of the Chicago Community Trust, Helene Gayle focused on equal opportunity for the city’s haves and have-nots.
During Gayle’s tenure, one of Chicago’s oldest and best-resourced philanthropies unveiled a 10-year strategy to increase household wealth, close the life expectancy gap between black and white Chicagoans, and catalyzing development in southern and western neighborhoods with a history of divestment.
Now Gayle is leaving Chicago to become the 11e president of Spelman College, the historic college for black women.
But she is not leaving quietly: she encourages the movers and shakers of her adopted city to think big.
“We are not closing the wealth gap. The wealth gap is widening. It is increasing because people who have wealth — it is getting worse. People who lack economic wealth – that is also compounded in a negative way,” Gayle, 66, told The Sun-Times on Friday.
“What will it take for people who have been excluded from economic opportunities to get the start they need? What are the possible options that could… break this cycle and give people the opportunity to start gaining an economic footing? »
Gayle acknowledged that “the word ‘reparations’ scared people away.”
But she argued that it shouldn’t. This means “creating programs that target those who are most financially unstable so that we can, in effect, break the cycle of the growing wealth gap.”
“It is not necessary for every person of African descent to receive a check. There are many ways to combat financial instability and provide people with a better financial future,” she said.
This could take the form of so-called “baby ties”. An account would be created for each black newborn who grows over time for later use to buy a home, pay school fees, or start a business.
It could be done at the federal, state or municipal level — or all three — and perhaps be funded, in part, by “luxury taxes,” Gayle said.
Another possibility would be a guaranteed basic income – a monthly check to cover basic necessities.
The Chicago Community Trust has signed on to help Chicago evaluate a year-long, $31.5 million pilot program that calls for giving $500 a month to 5,000 families in need, with no strings attached. Cook County is launching its own $35 million version of the program.
Once these assessments are complete, Gayle would like to see another Guaranteed Basic Income program targeting residents of communities where the gap in wealth and life expectancy is the greatest.
“Let’s start by talking about big programs that could really have an impact at the population level, because we so often think of individual-level interventions, which can make a huge difference for individuals. But it doesn’t change systems at the end of the day,” Gayle said.
The “one-two punch” of a pandemic that has had a disparate impact on communities of color and the civil unrest following the death of George Floyd have created an unsustainable “sense of urgency”, a Gayle said.
But the trust has still managed to convince more than 25 companies to commit to specific actions to put their money where they were two years ago.
Proposed actions include increasing annual spending on black and Latino businesses, hiring people with criminal records, or investing in a $25 million “EPIC fund.”
The trust’s website describes the EPIC Fund as a “new vehicle for providing equity capital to catalytic real estate projects in underinvested communities.”
“I am incredibly encouraged by what I see. The big banks here in Chicago…put huge amounts of money in the junkyards. Organizations coming together and working in partnership in ways never before possible. I think there’s something going on here,” Gayle said.
There is a time when we can have real positive change here in the Chicago area. The expression, the best way to predict the future is to create it. It’s in our hands. We have the ability to make things happen. »
As for the move to Spelman, Gayle called it a “continuation” of the work she’s done here to close the racial and ethnic wealth gap.
“What better way to make sure people have what they need than to make sure they have an education that gives them the skills to have a career where they can contribute to society? she says.
“It was about a passion. It spoke of who I am as a person.