By Tonia Hill, City Bureau

In a January 2017 study, Prosperity Now found that there are twice as many Black families as white families in Chicago with zero wealth.

The wealth gap between Black and white families is not new; it’s the result of decades of racist policies, from slavery to redlining to mass incarceration. Prosperity Now is a research and advocacy group founded in 1979 to help working families achieve financial security. It runs the Racial Wealth Divide Initiative, directed by Lillian Singh, which works with organizations in economically challenged communities of color to support wealth-building efforts.

Pauline Sylvain-Lewis and Lauren Wesley are directors of the North Lawndale Employment Network, an urban workforce development organization on Chicago’s West Side. Carlos Nelson, through his work as executive director of the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation, promotes the revitalization of low- to moderate-income communities on Chicago’s South Side.

The latter two organizations are part of a cohort of five Chicago groups (the others being the Chinese Mutual Aid Association, the Gads Hill Center and the Spanish Coalition for Housing) where Prosperity Now plans to help launch, expand or improve wealth-building initiatives.

In three separate conversations, we discussed the racial wealth divide in Chicago and what programming their organizations are providing to address that gap. These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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Tonia Hill: What was the motivation behind launching the Racial Wealth Divide Initiative?

Lillian Singh: The challenges of racial and economic inequality are not just an individual issue. We see so much data about how there are disparities between families across racial lines. We also see that if you go from one community in Chicago to another, there are community disparities with respect to grocery stores, availability of banks, clean streets and employment. If you dig even deeper, there is institutional, economic inequality in the way nonprofits that are led by and serving people of color in communities are treated compared to other nonprofits.

TH: How are you attempting to address the racial wealth divide? What programs or services do you offer in conjunction with Prosperity Now?

Pauline Sylvain-Lewis: One way is through North Lawndale Employment Network’s workforce development program. We understood that a minimum-wage or an entry-level position is not going to help close the gap. We equip people with skills and resources so that you can have a 15- to 17-dollar-an-hour job.

We can serve people in the community who are already working and need to tap in or need a [financial literacy] workshop. Three years ago, I had no clue that in Chicago if 65 percent of people lost their income, in three months they could be homeless or in poverty. It’s educating the community in a variety of ways.

Carlos Nelson: Many of our seniors that moved into this community were civil servants or worked in the steel mills. Our younger families, because of the jobs that have fled the community, don’t have as many opportunities. So much of our work is about bringing living-wage jobs, making educational opportunities and enhancing the educational institutions so that our kids are on track and have an opportunity to excel.

We’re also investing in the social-emotional needs of parents. Parents need job readiness or resume-writing training. Some of our young parents struggle with passing the 8th-grade basic equivalency tests, so we’ve gotten resources from McCormick Foundation, United Way, W.K. Kellogg Foundation and CVS Pharmacy to help tutor them. GAGDC is also purchasing and renovating homes in the community. We’re training parents doing credit repair work so they can potentially buy a home or be trained as a strong stakeholder renter in the community.

TH: Can you identify barriers to wealth building for Black families in Chicago?

PSL: The education level is one huge barrier because if you can’t fill out the basic enrollment application or pass the math test at the temp agencies, then you can’t even get the basic jobs. People with felony backgrounds—although they’ve made changes in the law—there’s still a stigma around them getting employment.

Lauren Wesley: Debt management or money management or lack thereof. Culturally, people of color are not taught about money in the same way that white households are [taught].

CN: The real estate business as a whole has explicitly kept Black and brown families down. Even though we are repairing credit and finding employment and getting families prepared, we have way too many homes vacant in our community. The value of our homes is almost flat, while in other areas of the city the value of the home increases. The whole appraisal and valuation of the homes in our community are impediments and stacked against us. Additionally, some seniors have beautiful brick bungalows, two-flats and three-flats. We’re having to take out a second mortgage or refinance, and it’s not to invest in something else. Our money often is used to hire a lawyer to address our son’s or grandson’s issue with the criminal justice system. Or it can be something as simple as a parking ticket or a red light violation. (Note: A ProPublic Illinois investigation this year showed how motorist ticket debt is disproportionately driving Black Chicagoans into bankruptcy.)

LS: One of the largest barriers is segregation, and it’s institutionalized. The city is so very fragmented that there are only certain areas where corporations are willing to make institutional investments in developing industries for jobs.

TH: Do you have a sense of optimism about closing the wealth gap, because of the work that you’re doing?

PSL: I do. It’s just that I want to be able to see it close, and knowing the statistics that we know, I’ll never get that chance. I don’t mind seeing small progress. We can celebrate these small wins, but our grandchildren will never see these gaps close. We’ll never know, but what we do know is that the work we’re doing will move the needle a little bit.

LW: Wealth building is not just about money management, it’s about streams of income, particularly streams of generational income. We won’t see the immediate effects now because we’re still at it. White people didn’t get where they are overnight; it took hundreds of years and slavery for that to happen. I think the needle has moved because there is more awareness. Part of our strategic plan is to get into the advocacy space, lobbying behind those small things. We’ve done some things on payday lending and trying to get the policy changed. We’re probably not going to close it completely in one generation.

CN: I’m not that optimistic about it because it’s so extreme. My optimism is the work that we’re doing as a collective, this organization and others like this, working together to start shifting the paradigm. I’m optimistic that we will begin to trend in a positive direction.

LS: I think that if you ask different people, there are different nuggets of solutions. You can’t build wealth without income. I think the majority of Americans are struggling with sustainable income to afford basic life necessities that then allows them an opportunity to save effectively, which is the foundation of building wealth.



This report was produced by City Bureau, a Chicago-based civic journalism lab. It was supported in part by Rise Local, a project of New America.

Tonia Hill is a writer based in Chicago. This summer, she and a team of journalists spent ten weeks reporting on Black Generational Wealth with City Bureau, a civic journalism lab in Woodlawn. Previously, she was a staff writer at the Hyde Park Herald, where she wrote extensively about the Barack Obama Presidential Center.

Cover image by Robert V. Ruggiero.


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