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Ending the Cycle of Poverty to Create Safer Neighborhoods in Chicago

I am proud to say I was born and raised in the Chicagoland area. Upon telling others of the place I call home, I often find myself answering common questions about my experiences as a Chicagoan. “Is it really that cold?” “Is the stuffed pizza actually that good?” “Chicago, huh? You must be a big Chance the Rapper fan, right?” While the answers to all these questions are undoubtedly yes, there is another common question that I often struggle to answer: “Is the city safe?”

The answer to this question is far more complex than a simple yes or no. People generalize Chicago as a violent city because they heard a statistic like 764 people were killed in the city in 2016. While the data can highlight increasing rates of crime from year to year, what seems to be missing from these conversations is the concern over the overwhelming levels of poverty and lack of resources in the neighborhoods most riddled with crime. Statistics show that most crime in Chicago is consolidated primarily in neighborhoods in the South and West sides of the city. Rather than focusing on finding ways to alleviate poverty and provide resources in these communities, it seems as though these communities are ignored. Many people seem reluctant to address it, but the city is economically and racially segregated, with predominantly minority neighborhoods in the South and West being the most impacted.

While living under these conditions of poverty, many Chicagoans struggle in their daily lives. In these communities, access to adequate health care services, educational funding, and employment opportunities is limited. Often, it seems as though these problems are neglected by a number of elected officials. Shortly after his inauguration in January, President Trump, tweeted about violence in Chicago, suggesting what he seems to think is a simple fix to ending violence across the city: “I will send in the Feds!” However, this tweet shows just how disconnected he is with our city. It would be far more constructive to address resource inequities and find ways to improve high poverty conditions to help combat violence in Chicago.

Access to adequate health care services, particularly in mental health, should be made available to those in underserved areas. In Illinois, over 3 million low income people benefit from Medicaid. Services under Medicaid and under the Affordable Care Act should be protected so that those living in poverty can access critical health benefits.

Exposure to violence, which is more common in inner city communities, has an impact on an individual’s mental health. Experiencing violence has been linked with depression and witnessing violence, has been linked with anger. With a national average of 752 people per mental health worker in the United States, Illinois ranks 30th in the country for amount of personal support provided, with 844 people per worker. In addition, mental health service coverage for children also fails to meet standards, ranking 41st in the country. In many instances, people in these areas do not receive the proper care they need in order to handle issues stemming from violence; this can affect their ability to do well in school and keep employment, which contributes to the continuing cycle of poverty and violence.

Education is another critical area where significant changes must be made in order to ensure students are getting the education they deserve. In Chicago, the quality of education differs drastically from communities between areas that experience high levels of poverty to areas with low levels of poverty. Feeling neglected, not having the proper tools to succeed, and/or not being motivated academically, many students in schools in low-income communities struggle. They may become discouraged and are more likely to drop-out than those in schools with better funding and support. This can ultimately affect their quality of life, as statistics show higher levels of unemployment associated with those who do not complete high school (13.8 percent) compared to those who have earned a Bachelor’s degree or higher (3.1 percent). The Chicago Public School system must figure out a better way to fund schools and stop neglecting particular students (primarily low-income minorities) in the school system.

In many low income communities, it seems as though opportunities to start careers are scarce. Access to job opportunities and training programs can help individuals earn an income and break the cycle of poverty, crime, and violence. Apprenticeships and job training programs can provide individuals from low-income communities with the opportunity to learn a new trade and earn money in the process. This can be extremely beneficial to those living in Chicago and across the state of Illinois, as the unemployment rate for youth in the state is the second highest in the nation. Young Invincibles’ Midwest office has been working diligently with the Illinois Governor’s Cabinet on Children and Youth to make apprenticeships available throughout the state. I have no doubt that this work will not only help decrease the unemployment rate, but will also change the lives of those young adults who participate.

Throughout Chicago, there are also organizations whose mission is to do the same. I recently interviewed Jenny Wolfe of Chicago’s Year Up, a non profit providing job training for low income young adults in Chicago. She explained how Year Up works with companies to provide talented and capable individuals with the opportunity to take part in a training program that can teach them the skills they need to be prepared for the job. She’s witnessed first hand the positive impact this type of investment can have on young adults. One student, she says, was able to secure a job following his time with Year Up and was able to buy a house for himself and his family. The ability to transform the trajectory of a person’s life and the lives of the people around them is profound. It is important to recognize the need for programs such as Year Up and the lasting positive effects they can have on people in poverty stricken communities.  

To answer the question as to why Chicago is unsafe for so many, you must consider the factors that contribute to the lack of safety in these areas. We will not be able to confidently say the city is safe until we address the disparities in access and opportunity throughout the city. Lawmakers must continue to fight for change in health care and education in these low income communities. In addition, much work must be done to alleviate poverty and increase job opportunities in these communities. Nonetheless, with strides currently being taken to combat the unemployment rate through apprenticeships and programs like Year Up, we are heading in a positive direction. Action must be taken to ensure that people in these communities are not being ignored. Only then, will Chicago be a safe city for all.


Yetunde Dosu is a Chicago native and a first generation American. She is the youngest daughter of two hard-working Nigerian immigrants who always stressed the importance of education. She hopes to receive her Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from the University of Illinois. She serves as an Summer Fellow in the Organizing Department in the Midwest office. She is passionate about helping others and hopes to aid those in underserved communities by connecting them with tools and opportunities they need to succeed.