Marguerite Casey Foundation investments in the Midwest region (which is comprised of Illinois) are focused in Chicago. Chicago stretches for 22 miles along the southwest shore of Lake Michigan and is the third largest city in America with 2.7 million residents. Since 2002, the foundation has awarded 136 grants to 44 organizations, totaling $32 million in the Midwest region. Given the smaller geographic size of this region (most grantees are in Chicago), grantees are well networked through the Chicago Equal Voice Network and other coalitions, allowing for greater progress in movement building.
Three significant factors impact the lives of low-income families in the region:
Failure to Pass a State Budget since July 1, 2015
The Illinois State Legislature has failed to pass a state budget since July 1, 2015 due to a stalemate between Republican Governor Rauner and the Democrat-controlled State Assembly. At more than five months, the current budget stalemate is the longest in Illinois history.
Due to a series of court-ordered and legislative interventions, 90 percent of the state’s budget continues to be funded but the remaining unfunded 10 percent is allocated largely to social services contracts. This has resulted in dire consequences for programs such as homeless shelters, mental health clinics, immigration services, and after school programs for at-risk youth. During an October 2015 survey of 544 United Way-affiliated agencies in Chicago, 84 percent reported cuts to client services and 79 percent had eliminated programs. Many worry that a prolonged budget stalemate could force an unraveling of the social service safety net — a vast network of nonprofit organizations that exist to help the poorest and most vulnerable in Illinois.
Regressive Tax Structure
According to a 2015 study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) and the Fiscal Policy Center at Voices for Illinois Children, Illinois has the most unfair tax system in the Midwest and the fifth most unfair tax system in the U.S. Due to a state flat tax, the poor end up paying more in taxes as a percentage of income while the rich pay less. In fact, the findings showed that the lowest income Illinoisans pay nearly three times more in taxes as a percent of their income than the state’s wealthiest residents.  The loss of revenue from reduced tax rates on the wealthy results in deficits and social service cuts that disproportionately affects low income families.
Racism and Police Brutality
Chicago has a long history of police brutality toward low-income people of color. In May 2015, the Chicago City Council unanimously approved a landmark ordinance that sets aside $5.5 million in reparation for victims of police torture from 1972 to 1991 – a time when Jon Burge, a detective and then a police commander, tortured confessions out of young Black men in Chicago’s South Side. At least 120 African-American men were suffocated with plastic bags, electrocuted, burned, beaten, and tortured in other horrific ways in order to force confessions. Several victims spent decades in prison for crimes they did not commit before being exonerated. The reparations package includes $100,000 to each victim, job training, counseling, as well as a public acknowledgement of torture committed under Burge, a formal apology by the City Council, a permanent memorial recognizing the victims, and the addition of the Burge case to the 8th and 10th grade history curricula in Chicago Public Schools. Amnesty International reported that the reparations package marks the first time that survivors of “racially motivated police torture” have been granted compensation in the U.S. Over the years, settlements, legal defense, and pensions for Burge and his “midnight” torture crew cost Chicago taxpayers over $100 million. Police brutality-related lawsuits in general have cost Chicago taxpayers $521 million during the last decade alone.
Police brutality in Chicago made headlines again when the dashcam video of Laquan McDonald’s shooting was publically released on November 24, 2015. The 17-year-old Black youth was shot 16 times by a white police officer, Jason Van Dyke, who had 20 previous complaints and 2 lawsuits filed against him related to racism and excessive force. Protests began in downtown Chicago with the release of the video, as McDonald was killed over fourteen months prior, yet Van Dyke was put on paid desk duty and was not charged with murder until the day before the video’s court-ordered release. Under mounting pressure, Chicago Police released other videos of recent police brutality: one in which 38-year-old African-American, Philip Coleman, was shocked repeatedly with a taser and dragged down a hallway by officers in 2012, then shocked repeatedly again and beaten in the hospital room before dying from an allergic drug reaction. Another video showed the fatal shooting of 25-year-old African-American, Ronald Johnson, by a White police officer in 2014. The fallout from these videos has led to numerous downtown protests, the resignation of the police superintendent, the creation of a task force to study police accountability, the replacement of the head of the city’s Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), and a federal civil rights investigation into Chicago Police practices.
Organizing for a Progressive Agenda
In the midst of these challenges, foundation grantees have used the Chicago Equal Voice Network (CEVN) to mobilize low-income families around a sophisticated, progressive agenda. CEVN members maintain that the crisis of deficits has enabled politicians to use the economic climate as a rationale to make harmful policy decisions for low-income families. Mobilizing constituents around critical issues such as progressive revenue has resulted in a strong and active CEVN where the average monthly attendance of the steering committee and bimonthly attendance of members is 90 percent. This past spring, the Chicago Equal Voice Network organized a campaign in Springfield where over 600 constituents advocated for Assembly members to enact progressive revenue policies. CEVN members are also currently discussing how to best support the movement led by Chicago youth to highlight and end police brutality and racial profiling.
Foundation investments have also played a key role in organizing low-income families and communities of color to vote. This played a critical role in the April 2015 mayoral election in which Jesús “Chuy” Garcia, the former executive director of ENLACE Chicago (a long-term foundation grantee), won 44 percent of the runoff votes against the highly favored incumbent Rahm Emanuel. Many, including Emanuel, were surprised by the run-off election results as they had expected a landslide victory. In a city where mayors backed by powerful interest groups were virtually untouchable, the neighborhoods showed that they have a strong voice and powerful mobilizing potential.