It is clear that, for many African Americans, the Chicago economy simply is not working.
The growth of economic informality on Chicago’s South and West Sides has occurred at the nexus where poverty, joblessness, economic decline, racial discrimination, and the mark of a criminal record meet and conspire to exclude many from gainful employment, even during times when the regional economy is booming. In the context of persistently high rates of Black unemployment and social systems that not only fail to ameliorate but sometimes actively perpetuate material hardships, an expansion of the informal economy was an entirely predictable outcome. Now, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Chicago and the nation must contend with what is shaping up to be the worst economic downturn in living memory. The reliance on informal work is most certainly set to expand.
Although the informal economy helps residents subsist from week to week, there should be no mistake about the living conditions it enables: participants cope with persistent poverty and the myriad problems that accompany it. Despite simultaneously engaging in multiple informal activities, survey respondents reported they and their dependents faced debilitating hardships. Housing insecurity, food insecurity, economic insecurity — livelihoods through the informal economy are inherently precarious. According to respondents, although few were able to comfort-ably make ends meet through informal economic activity, survival economies nevertheless are where various forms of life-sustaining capital circulate within and between low-income neighborhoods.Whether it is loose cigarettes, SNAP benefits, cash, or even one’s body, these forms of “capital” support thousands of Chicago households, though at punishingly low levels.
As high unemployment rates continue in the weeks and months following the coronavirus outbreak, Chicago’s informal economy will come under increasing strain, its ability to support those newly out of work, severely tested. In time, the numbers of participants — both as buyers of low-cost goods and as sellers — will surely increase as households absorb the financial blow of an economy on lockdown. Other impacts, however, are more immediately recognizable. Media reports have revealed that a disproportionate number of African Americans have succumbed to COVID-19. As medical experts and the general public grapple with ways to understand the stark racial disparities in deaths during the pandemic, many are pointing to underlying health conditions as a key con-tributing factor. While there might be legitimate medical reasons for noting the chronic ailments that have contributed to a disproportionate number of African Americans dying from COVID-19, in the societal context within which these pre-mature deaths have occurred, the phrase“underlying conditions” is little more than a euphemism for “poverty.” Diseases such as diabetes, cardiac disease, and hypertension are deeply rooted in socioeconomic status, and stressors from housing and employment insecurity, as well as poor diet, are the triggers for many of the COVID-19 co-morbidities befalling low-income Chicagoans.
Despite the clear risks of engaging in the informal economy during a pandemic, work in survival economies continues.Faced with the impossible choice of either continuing to work and risking expo-sure to a deadly virus or suffering a total loss of income, many reluctantly choose the latter. As with many other decisions, the ability to participate in economic in-formality or to avoid it altogether is also deeply rooted in socioeconomic status. Long after the coronavirus pandemic subsides, Chicago’s survival economies will endure. The question remains:
what will be done to expand economic opportunities and ease the burdens carried by Chicago’s lowest-income residents?