All posts by joeljacobs2020

Puerto Rican communities take matters into their own hands

By Joel Jacobs
Medill Reports

As Puerto Rico struggles with crushing public debt, an economic recession and natural disasters, many residents disillusioned with the local and federal government have taken matters into their own hands. For many of the approximately 3.1 million Puerto Ricans on the island, the strategy going forward is oriented around self-reliance. 

“The local government is a colonial government — it does not work for the people,” said Robert Rabin, director of the Vieques Historic Archive in Puerto Rico.

While much of the media coverage has focused on the capital of San Juan, where massive protests led to the governor’s resignation last summer, communities across the island have taken it upon themselves to tackle a wide variety of socioeconomic and environmental issues with local initiatives for everything from electrical power to hospital care.

Not only do these communities face an unresponsive government, but also an exodus of Puerto Ricans to the mainland. Over half a million Puerto Ricans have left the island in the past decade due to natural disasters and lack of economic opportunity.

Population decline in Puerto Rico over the last two decades. Many have left due to natural disasters and lack of economic opportunity. (Data: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis/World Bank. Graph: Joel Jacobs/Medill)

Puerto Rico’s economy was formerly structured around manufacturing, but many U.S. companies moved their factories out of Puerto Rico as a crucial federal tax break was phased out from 1996 to 2005. They took many middle-class jobs with them — currently, manufacturing employs around half the number of Puerto Ricans compared to 2000, a loss of 70,000 jobs.

A graph showing the decline of employment in manufacturing in Puerto Rico over the last two decades. Many U.S. companies left the island after federal tax breaks were repealed. (Data: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Graph: Joel Jacobs/Medill)

The interactive graphic below gives examples of how Puerto Ricans across the island are tackling their communities’ unique challenges.

Photo at top: Mabette Colon (left) and her father, Alberto, residents of Guayama, a municipality in southern Puerto Rico. For years, they have worked to bring attention to coal ash pollution in their community, produced by a nearby coal plant. (Arnab Mondal/Medill)

Over a month after deadly quakes, a Puerto Rican town is still reeling

By Joel Jacobs
Medill Reports

The town of Guánica in southern Puerto Rico is still reeling from a series of earthquakes that began in late December.

The largest — a devastating 6.4-magnitude earthquake that struck around 4:24 a.m. on Jan. 7 — was followed by a 5.6-magnitude aftershock a few hours after, and a 5.9 temblor later in the week.

The quake knocked out power across the island. At least one person was killed and thousands slept outside their homes in Guánica and the surrounding municipalities on Puerto Rico’s southern coast.

Guánica is one of the hardest hit areas. Over a month after the Jan. 7 quake, the streets of the town remained nearly empty, and damaged homes could be seen on almost every block.

“You can tell on the faces of the municipal employees [in Guánica] that they are not well,” said Helga Maldonado, regional director of the nonprofit ESCAPE.

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How Chicago’s controversial TIF program took over a third of the city

By Joel Jacobs
Medill Reports

Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced reforms to Chicago’s controversial Tax Increment Financing program (TIF) earlier this month, promising transparency and more oversight.

“For too long, the City’s TIF spending decisions have occurred in the shadows,” she stated in a press release.

The press release also included a statement from Deputy Mayor of Economic and Neighborhood Development Samir Mayekar. “Each year, the City receives hundreds of millions of dollars in property taxes through the TIF program – and residents deserve to know that their money is being used well.”

It took decades for the TIF program to evolve from an obscure tax law passed in the 1970s to what critics call a “slush fund” that rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars a year and sparks protests outside City Hall over developments such as Lincoln Yards on the North Side.
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Six candidates compete in 12th District primary as committee plans appointment

By Joel Jacobs
Medill Reports

With the March 17 primary fast approaching, six candidates are vying to fill the 12th District House seat held by former State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, the Chicago Democrat recently appointed to fill former Illinois Senate President John Cullerton’s seat.

The district consists of parts of Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Near North and Uptown and includes Boystown, Chicago’s main LGBTQ neighborhood. The district is heavily Democratic, so the winner of the Democratic primary will almost certainly become the next representative.

Meanwhile, the 12th District Democratic Committee has accepted applications to appoint a temporary legislator to the seat, which has been vacant since Jan. 21, when Feigenholtz officially stepped down and replaced Cullerton. The appointee will be selected by the committee after an open forum on Sunday at the Center on Halsted, 3656 N Halsted St.

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$750 million INVEST South/West initiative kicks off in Austin

By Alison Saldanha and Joel Jacobs
Medill Reports

Loud applause rang through the Kehrein Arts Center auditorium in Austin on the city’s West Side as newly appointed Chicago Planning Commissioner Maurice Cox presented Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s new INVEST South/West initiative earlier this month.

Residents and business owners, hopeful for an economic renewal, attended to hear how Cox intends to pump $750 million of public funds into 10 historically neglected neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West sides. Continue reading

As ward redistricting approaches, where will jail inmates count?

By Joel Jacobs
Medill Reports

When Chicago politicians redrew the 24th Ward in 2011, it contained a notable addition — a narrow, hook-like appendage that extended over a mile south, widening at the bottom to include the Cook County Jail.

As a result, jail inmates accounted for approximately one in six people in the new 24th Ward.

The City Council draws ward boundaries every 10 years based on the U.S. census, which counts jail inmates as residents of the place they are incarcerated at. On April 1, 2010 — the last Census Day — 9,633 people were held in the Cook County Jail. The following year, wards were redrawn with around 54,000 people each.

Even though the Cook County Jail’s population has dropped precipitously in the past decade, it still holds more than 5,500 inmates on average. With the 2020 census coming up this year, the question remains how the jail population will factor into next year’s redistricting. Continue reading