When Chicago high school teacher Mike Smith began door-knocking with the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) summer organizing institute, he didn’t know he would find himself facing off against the country’s biggest banks. Smith and his colleagues merely aimed to increase vaccination rates in high-poverty neighborhoods like Englewood, where Smith teaches. Vaccines, Smith told me, meant people “didn’t have to worry about just that one thing.” But it didn’t take long for folks to start telling Smith, sure, yes, a vaccine—but that’s the least of their worries right now, considering soaring housing prices, omnipresent gun violence, and bills that keep mounting. One woman told Smith that despite working several jobs, she can barely afford rent. Another told Smith her dreams of her kids playing outside without fear of violence. Smith nodded at all of this; vaccination cards, regardless of completion, neither pay the rent nor stop bullets.
So the next week, when Smith and his colleagues went out to knock on doors, they adopted a different strategy. This time, influenced by a growing movement around the city budget, they asked community members to think big. “Two billion dollars are coming to Chicago Public Schools, another two billion to the City of Chicago—how do you think it should get spent?” Smith and his fellow CTU organizers asked, door after door.
This question is at the center of Chicago’s Right to Recovery campaign, a progressive grassroots drive to reimagine the city’s budget priorities. The campaign challenges the mayor to put the city’s people ahead of its financiers; CTU is one of the biggest organizational members. Its aims are straightforward: Unprecedented Covid relief funds should be used in unprecedented ways to help working families; politicians’ calls to “return to normal” hardly bring relief to strained families and educators.
The Right to Recovery campaign operates on a simple philosophy: People know best what they need. As such, the campaign has been first and foremost a listening one. Organizers see their role not as telling people what they need, but helping them find their voice to demand for it themselves. As neighbor after neighbor told Smith of their dreams of housing security, food security, quality child care, and safe neighborhoods, Smith and his fellow organizers handed them postcards to send their thoughts to the mayor. They invited them to join town halls to further strategize on achieving their vision for affordable housing, utility bill relief, safe neighborhoods. They distributed surveys to thousands of Chicagoans to gauge priorities. They organized pickets at the Board of Education to demand that relief funds be used to hire more social workers and nurses, and to provide well-ventilated classrooms. The campaign has drawn in throngs of multiracial, working-class people who together articulated the budget they needed. It has forged alliances with movement-minded members of the City Council, who have translated these desires into a visionary ordinance known as the Chicago Rescue Act.
Although billions of dollars practically falling from the sky seems like a campaign slam dunk, the Right to Recovery faces steep opposition from City Hall. Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s response to this massive infusion of new funds has been depressing: to invest in the very structures that maintain inequality. Two hundred and eighty million dollars of relief funds have already gone to the Chicago Police department—despite an overwhelming majority of budget survey participants calling to redistribute police budget funds. And Mayor Lightfoot has promised an even greater sum—one billion of the nearly two billion earmarked for the City of Chicago—toward paying down the city’s debt, aiming to relieve banks, rather than Chicagoans. As Lightfoot assured the City’s creditors in April, “First and foremost, we need to make sure that we address our structural deficit. We had to do some one-timers [a type of financial borrowing technique] to close the budget gap for 2021 because we didn’t know whether there would actually be any other monies available. I’m looking to eliminate some of those one-timers and use some of the [relief] money to do that.”
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Covid had strained the city’s budget, drastically driving up expenses to cover emergency provisions while reducing revenue. To make ends meet, the City turned to private debt-financing mechanisms, such as $465 million “scoop and toss” loans (issuing new long-term debt to pay off maturing bonds) financed through JPMorgan Chase.
But it was hardly preordained that huge private banks like JPMorgan would be the financiers of cities’ recovery efforts. At the start of the pandemic, the federal government created a novel financial facility to provide low-cost federal loans to state and local government funds—a seemingly progressive dream—though its faulty implementation made the program, at best, functionally irrelevant, and at worst, discriminatory. (The program ended on December 31, 2020.) Hesitant to actually compete with private banks, the Federal Reserve’s lending facility failed to offer sufficiently competitive terms to entice municipalities away from the private market. As such, cities like Chicago turned to lower-cost private loans to cover emergency services, rather than the higher rates offered by the federal government—to Wall Street’s great advantage. While millions of Chicagoans have lost health, homes and wealth, JPMorgan, the bank financing Chicago’s scoop-and-toss loans, made nearly $12 billion of profit in 2021—a 155 percent increase from the year before.
Lightfoot no doubt saw the arrival of billions of federal dollars as a partial exit from the city’s financial serfdom. However, paying banks was never the intended use of those relief moneys; in fact, the Federal Reserve explicitly prohibited using funds for debt service. Nonetheless, the Lightfoot administration proposed a workaround, by essentially paying down debt service from the city’s corporate fund, and then redirecting relief dollars into that fund. Organizers of the Right to Recovery campaign were not fooled. As Alderman Daniel La Sparta, the lead sponsor of Chicago’s Rescue Act, wrote in a recent memo to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to alert her of Lightfoot’s sleight-of-hand, “These types of budgetary maneuvers are directly opposed to Treasury guidance issued thus far, and they do not effectively serve the residents of our city, who are in need of more secure housing, community-based public health responses to the pandemic, expanded mental health services, expanded community-based violence prevention programing, youth jobs programs, and business relief among other needs.”
In other words, paying the banks in a time of crisis not only breaks the rules, it fails the common-sense test. And Chicagoans aren’t buying it. As Dixon Romeo, a Right to Recovery and United Working Families organizer told me, “The city having a higher bond rating or a higher credit rating in the next two to five years does not help people. It doesn’t stop people from getting evicted or make a place for their kids as people to go back to work. Paying off that debt does not give me a mental health clinic in my neighborhood. It doesn’t relieve the suffering that’s going on in our neighborhood. It pays the bank. That’s it.”
What’s more, Lightfoot’s plan was undemocratic, once again bailing out banks instead of people. La Spata explained, “I was doing housing and community development work in 2008, 2011. At that time, when we were on our knees as a city, did the banks come to our aid? They most certainly did not. So the notion that at this moment, when Chicagoans are again on their knees…that our first move would be to pay hundreds of millions in debt service—that’s just not what anyone is asking for.”
Instead, Chicagoans are demanding bold budget priorities. Rather than reinvesting in structures that perpetuate inequality and abandon communities in need, per the mayor’s vision, Chicagoans are pushing for a budget that foregrounds community well-being, using already existing resources. It would cost merely $70 million—just 3 percent of Chicago Public School’s recovery funds—to make sure every Chicago school had a nurse, social worker, and librarian. As CTU president Jesse Sharkey recently put it, “The mayor has access to unprecedented resources that prior Chicago mayors could only dream about.”
But the forces opposing the Right to Recovery vision are formidable; a campaign that displaces banks to the back of the line will not happen without extraordinary struggle. As Smith told me, as he prepared for another day of door knocking, the campaign won’t succeed “until every person in the community, every teacher, every student, every family is asking for a budget that works for Chicago.” Places like Chicago remain oppressive and unequal, Smith believes, because people—politicians and citizens alike—inherit systems of inequality and accept them, bereft of any vision that things could be different. But what Chicago’s politicians may be lacking in vision—beyond bovine calls to return to normal—Chicago teachers, activists, and community members have supplied in spades. They are boldly showing the way. Now it’s up to the mayor to follow.