Chicago’s suburbs cannot meet their populations’ growing need for social services like food pantries, emergency assistance, health care and homeless shelters through the current decentralized system, according to a new report by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
A national trend toward rising poverty in the suburbs may be exacerbated in the Chicago area by the city’s gentrification, demolition of public housing, and movement of new immigrants to certain suburbs, the report states.
The researchers recommend improved coordination on several levels: across the public and private sectors, with the township governments serving as hubs; among providers within each county to conduct joint projects; and across the six-country region to track needs and resources.
They also recommend that the state offer flexible aid to low-income townships.
“There is no government responsible for delivering or coordinating social services outside Chicago,” said Rebecca Hendrick, associate professor of public administration and co-author of the report.
“Nonprofits and townships do most of the work in the suburbs. This is a complex web that also includes the county for health care,” she said. “Compared to the city of Chicago and the counties, little has been known about the human services being delivered by other local governments in the region.”
Townships are required by state law to provide general assistance, or aid to indigent adults, but not necessarily any social services, Hendrick said. She noted that social services delivered by townships and municipalities are targeted toward the elderly, who tend to vote regularly.
“A decentralized system can be responsive to local needs, but also can cause uneven access to services,” Hendrick said.
Hendrick and co-author Karen Mossberger, professor of public administration, predict that the need for human services will continue to grow as the population ages. They noted that their study might understate current conditions because most survey responses were gathered before the economy worsened in late 2008.
Among their findings:
-The number of poor living in the suburbs has been increasing since 1990, nearly two decades before the current recession.
-Without home rule, townships have strict limits on maximum tax rates and levy increases. Most levies have been voted down since 1990, indicating a lack of political will to raise revenues.
-Forty percent of municipal governments said they should not be involved in social service delivery.
-Most local governments contract with nonprofits or other governments to provide social services.
-Sixteen percent of suburbs said they have recently taken steps to reduce or eliminate services.
– Townships that tax and spend more for services tend to have either a wealthier tax base or a higher poverty level.
-Not all high-poverty townships offer services.
-Many rural townships do not provide services and have little experience even with the mandated general assistance.
The study was funded by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust. The report is available at www.uic.edu/cuppa/gci/index.htm.
UIC ranks among the nation’s top 50 universities in federal research funding and is Chicago’s largest university with 25,000 students, 12,000 faculty and staff, 15 colleges and the state’s major public medical center. A hallmark of the campus is the Great Cities Commitment, through which UIC faculty, students and staff engage with community, corporate, foundation and government partners in hundreds of programs to improve the quality of life in metropolitan areas around the world.