In the battle of Chicago’s budget deficit, community investment takes the hit

Children, ages eight to 13, of the Austin community on Chicago’s West Side, attend basketball practice organized by the Westside Health Authority. Chicago Police Department officers often join these sessions as part of their community policing initiatives to build stronger ties with the neighborhood youth. (Alison Saldanha/ Medill)

By Alison Saldanha
Medill Reports

Just after sunset on a December afternoon, squeals and laughter filled the basketball court of the Chicago Jesuit Academy, on Chicago’s West Side, as 60 students ages 8 to 13 dribbled balls and ran back and forth.

With a clipboard in his hand and a pen tucked behind his ear, coach Brandon Wilkerson called out to players to come forward, one by one, and try shooting into the basket. At 28, Wilkerson works in the after-school program run by the Westside Health Authority in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. As the floor pulsated with the pounding of basketballs, he said, “I see myself in these kids.”

“I want them to get the right kind of attention,” he said. “Often they have nothing to do after school and can easily get influenced by gangs roaming the area. Heck, I was influenced when I was their age too.” 

By definition, after-school programs provide students with an opportunity to participate in academic, sports or technology-related activities outside of the traditional school day. But according to Wilkerson, they offer something that at-risk children often do not find at home — a sense of belonging. 

“These kids, they’re so innocent — all they want is to feel like they are part of something and, unfortunately, because their parents have to work twice as hard to have them get by the week — they don’t get a lot of attention at home,” he said. “So, they join gangs. But now, if we offer them these activities instead, they’ll lap that up, too. They just need to feel like they belong.” 

Yet under new Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot, funding for after-school programs has actually dropped, according to an examination of Chicago’s 2020 budget, passed on Nov. 26. The city council agreed to spend $15 million, a drop of 8% over the previous year. The year before, it dropped by 13%, as the city struggles with a budget deficit of nearly $1 billion. 

Critics contend that this shows Lightfoot’s “dissonance” with the city’s needs and her own campaign promises as a reformer who promised to “end the neglect of communities by building a city of fairness and hope and prosperity for the many, not just for the few.” 

“They say they have no money, but they choose not to put money in the right places. They would rather focus on policing violence because that’s a hot topic,” said Ralph Edwards, a reformed gang member and program manager of gun-violence-prevention group Metropolitan Family Services. 

Alycia Moaton, 18 and a leader at GoodKids MadCity, said the dip in funding comes at a time when the city’s youth need it most.  “You have students who are the only ones who can work in their family situations, but they can’t get a full-time job because they are in class, so after-school programs like After School Matters are the only option of, like, money,” Moaton said. 

Lightfoot’s budget cuts also follow a national trend. In his federal budget proposal for 2020, President Donald Trump eliminated funding for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative that finances after-school and summer programs across the country. The President argued this initiative, and 28 others, does not “address national needs” and “are more appropriately supported by state, local, or private funds.” 

During the budget hearings in October and November, activists gathered at City Hall to protest Lightfoot’s 7% budget hike for the Chicago Police Department. At $1.7 billion, this is the department’s largest budget in at least five years. 

“You have allocations for the police that are increasing by millions of dollars every year — why aren’t you investing that money into the students and into jobs for students?” Moaton said. 

Ald. Pat Dowell, chairman of the City Council’s Budget Committee, responds that the city tried its best to balance community needs with public safety. 

“We’re facing a large deficit so we’ve tried to be balanced and meet the city’s primary needs. We had to make choices, it was not easy,” she said. “People in communities are taxed a lot and we have tried to create a balance based on our revenue sources.” 

“Overall, the budget is putting more money toward community safety — not necessarily policing but safety,” said Ald. Sophia King of the 4th Ward. “This will go to organizations that are actually on the ground in our communities so I’m optimistic about that.” 

Anna Mangahas, a community organizer at ONE Northside working on police accountability, said the budget increase for CPD may be related to the consent decree coming into force this year. “The city has committed to a lot for police reform which will require money. There are many overdue promotions within the police department that are finally coming into force.”

Her colleague Anna Gaebler, a community organizer for economic justice at ONE Northside, expanded on Mangahas point.

“It’s true that implementing the consent decree is costly, but it appears to be a convenient scapegoat for massive allocation for policing and militarizing the city when there are certainly areas that do not require funding,” Gaebler said. 

During another rally in late November by demonstrators who demanded more funding for non-police anti-violence efforts, Lightfoot’s deputy mayor for public safety, Susan Lee, pointed out that the city budget has separately earmarked $9.2 million toward violence prevention. 

Anti-gun violence advocates such as Arne Duncan, former head of Chicago Public Schools, U.S. secretary of education and managing partner of Chicago CRED, said the sum is not nearly enough, especially when compared with spending in cities such as Los Angeles and New York. In fact, activists had wanted Lightfoot to spend $50 million for these programs. 

A closer look inside CPD’s budget reveals resources for community policing, which are focused on nurturing community ties with the police, have also declined from last year, in percentage terms. While CPD’s overall spending will rise, to $1.7 billion, the proposed budget for community policing remains the same at $80,000.

This comes along with a cut of 16 job postings in the office, including 13 for civilian community organizers, who form an important link between the police and the neighborhood. 

“The budget for community policing is on par with the last year and should be sufficient for now, but we acknowledge it could be more,” Dowell said. “Maybe next year, when we are out of our deficit and have identified newer sources of revenue and have developed more efficiency in government functioning, we can expand the budget on community policing.” 

King, the alderman, admitted she is concerned about the cuts for the program, calling it “one of the most important parts of policing in Chicago.” 

With the city’s budget cuts, after-school programs find themselves underfunded, diminishing their expansion in impoverished neighborhoods like Austin, where Brandon Wilkerson of the Westside Health Authority, grew up. 

On a typical day, he visits his students in their classrooms, to see if they are present and behaving. After basketball practice he and other organizers drop the children off at their doorstep, because, “Let’s face it, this area is not a safe space for them to be walking home after dark.” He added that they often also offer chips and juice at the end of a game day. 

“It would be great if the government pitches in, because we spend out of pocket for gas, snacks. I mean, I don’t get paid much in the first place, but we do it anyway because these kids deserve it,” said Wilkerson, who works part-time as a coach, earning minimum wage. 

Back at the Chicago Jesuit Academy’s basketball court, Rachel Lumpkin, 47, sat in the bleachers and scanned her phone, occasionally watching her 9-year-old son Julian practice with Wilkerson’s team.

“I think it’s really important for kids to have this, especially because it is free. How else are they going to afford it?” said Lumpkin, who works as a nurse at a hospital in Oak Park, near  Chicago’s West Side. A few months ago, the Lumpkins tried enrolling Julian in a competitive basketball program in the area but had to abandon plans when they learned it would cost them $300 for six months. 

“We felt the money would be better spent on sending him to school, and buying other supplies plus with this program,” she said. “Not only is it free, but he also gets the opportunity to interact with children from different backgrounds and to develop a healthy worldview.” 

Pointing to a few men on the court playing with the children, she said, “Those men are cops. These officers come to play with the children every week. It’s a great way to bridge the divide between law enforcement and young children of color.” 

She is pleased that Austin, which receives negative publicity for crime and poverty, is home to the program, saying, “We now have a safe space for collaboration between the police, the church and the community — and look at these kids — they’re hungry for it!”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify a quote.

Photo at top: Children, ages 8 to 13, of the Austin community on Chicago’s West Side, attend basketball practice organized by the Westside Health Authority. Chicago Police Department officers often join these sessions as part of their community policing initiatives to build stronger ties with the neighborhood youth.
(Alison Saldanha/MEDILL)