The Truth About Chicago’s Wealth Gap Crisis

How some Chicagoans thrive in affluent communities that are just blocks away from others drowning in poverty. 

Towering metal structures that pierce the sky. Clean streets lined with luxury stores and high-rises. Restaurants overlooking the Chicago River. Rooftop bars resting in the clouds with striking views of the city skyline. Boats cutting through the waves of Lake Michigan.

This is one face of Chicago.

Chicago's wealth gap
Photo of the Magnificent Mile by Unsplashed

Insufficient infrastructure. Streets of foreclosures and crumbling buildings. Tiny minimarts as grocery stores. Neighborhoods riddled with crime, gun violence, drugs, and gangs. Children lacking proper academic environments and resources.

And this is the other.

To the globe, Chicago is an economic hub, thriving off modern globalization with mounds of opportunity for all. In reality, however, the city is divided into two worlds. One floats on a raft of privilege, economic prosperity, and opportunity protected from the rampant issues that drown the other.

Chicagoans know the reality that for all the prosperity comes just as much poverty. Glowing neighborhoods lie right next to crumbling ones without access to the same resources.

In 2019, Stacker did a study using the most recent American Community Survey from the U.S. Census to determine Chicago’s 15 wealthiest and most impoverished communities. The study communicates the real and prevalent wealth gap, which uplifts some neighborhoods while others are destroyed.

Neighborhoods like Jackson, Williamson, Franklin, and Perry Counties were found immensely poverty-stricken, having median household incomes of under $25,000, falling under the Federal Poverty Line of $26,200. Unemployment rates were at a staggering 8% compared to the average 3.5% Chicago had in 2019.

South Side, Chicago
Photo of South Side by Wiki Commons

On the other hand, places like The Gold Coast, The Loop, and Lincoln Park, have an average income of over $50,000 and unemployment rates of 2.3%. These neighborhoods continue to reap all the benefits of the city’s economic structures, still having high incomes and low unemployment rates.

These communities are structurally worlds apart yet blocks away from one another. Residents living two different realities right next to each other. Why does one half of the city thrive while the other suffers? How did the city become so divided?

The History

To understand the immense wealth gap in Chicago today, one must realize how these neighborhoods evolved through modern realities.

Initially, the Gold Coast was nothing but undeveloped, swampy lands. After the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, millionaire Potter Palmer developed the area into an opulent community known today. Potter even built the grand Potter Mansion, the biggest house in Chicago with 42 rooms.

Lincoln Park, Chicago
Photo of Lincoln Park by Wiki Commons

Additionally, the Gold Coast was originally named Astor Street District, after John Jacob Astor, one of the richest men in the U.S. during the 1800s. Astor’s affiliation and the Palmer initial development drew other wealthy individuals and families to the area. Today, the Gold Coast is the 7th most affluent neighborhood in America with iconic streets like Lake Shore Drive and Oak Street, home to Chicago’s wealthiest elite.

Chicago, however, is not all beauty and wealth, and not every neighborhood has the success story of the Gold Coast.

The south side of Chicago has acclaimed its reputation for being the “bad” neighborhoods of Chicago. This negative connotation comes from decades of systematic racism and underdevelopment, which prohibits any ability for these communities to access the resources they need to succeed.

In the mid-1800s, the south side was an industrial powerhouse that drew thousands of immigrant workers and families. The economy was booming, and the workforce was strong.

During the late 1800s and through the early 1900s, African Americans began heavily populating the area, which sparked intense racial segregation. As Black families moved in, affluent white families moved to newly developed lakefront areas and northern neighborhoods. They took their money and influence with them, leaving these places and their residents to fend for their own.

A significant impact on the south side was the post-industrial crisis of 1950. Most major meatpacking companies that dominated the industry began closing their doors, tanking the economy. Unemployment and homelessness rates skyrocketed, and the scars of this can still be seen today through generational poverty.

Palmer_mansion,Chicago
Photo of Palmer House by Wiki Commons

Today

Chicago’s long history and current social and economic structures have led to a divided city. While some benefit from opportunities born out of access, status, and privilege; others face the burden on the poverty-stricken side of the wealth gap.

Many communities like Jackson and Williamson have residents who lack basic resources and economic mobility, while members of places like the Gold Coast and Lincoln Park thrive.

Without proper attention, these communities will continue to stray farther from affluent neighborhoods. The wealth gap in Chicago will continue to grow, and more people will suffer.

George Hashemi

Content Editor Associate

George admires the power of the written word and its ability to communicate different cultures and destinations to others. He is an avid reader, foodie and voyager. You will probably find him on a food-tour in Madrid, or curled up with a book in the beautiful blue city of Chefchaouen, Morocco.

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