(Guest Post) Making Votes Count: A New Vision for Illinois

November 7, 2013

(Editor’s Note: JCUA encourages submissions for guest blog posts on issues of social concern in Chicago, and Illinois more broadly. To inquire about submitting a guest blog post, please contact: info@jcua,org).

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by Ryan Blitstein
Senior Advisor for “Yes for Independent Maps.”  

I want to tell you about the Illinois we all wish we lived in.

The Illinois where our tax dollars are spent wisely—helping someone’s child stave off hunger, instead of lining the pockets of corrupt politicians. The state where the decisions government makes are open to us, not manipulated by legislators working only for themselves. The Illinois where we can walk up to the ballot box on Election Day, and choose a leader to represent our needs, knowing that the outcome was not determined months before in some smoke-filled room.

We don’t live in that state yet. But we can build it together.

panda mapsLet me introduce you to Yes for Independent Maps, a campaign to fix the broken, secretive redistricting process and put the voters back in charge of Illinois.

What does redistricting reform have to do with our vision? Behind closed doors, partisan leaders carve up legislative districts to guarantee their re-election. They cut themselves off from accountability, so if they’re corrupt or not getting the job done, we can’t vote them out of office. Fixing redistricting is the first step toward transforming our state for the better.

Independent redistricting protects and expands representation for diverse racial, ethnic, and religious groups. After California instituted independent maps, it led to a fresh crop of Jewish legislators in Sacramento, who created the first-ever Jewish caucus to focus on issues of interest to the community. This new, independently elected State Legislature has also addressed some of the root causes of poverty, from outdated school funding formulas to a broken immigration system.

This isn’t about which party is in charge, and it isn’t about a candidate, either. No one person has the power to heal our broken political system, but together, we can make it happen. It all starts with voters like you.

It’s time to let go of our cynicism and believe in the power of movements to solve big problems. I know with the help of friends like you, we can make that happen here in Illinois.

If you want to get involved in this historic campaign, visit http://www.IndependentMaps.org.

Tell Your Rabbi: Join the Fight for Economic Justice in IL

November 5, 2013

No one really likes taxes.  However, those same taxes that we grumble and complain about do what many of us cannot do on our own.  They provide the infrastructure to care for the elderly, educate our children, dispense healthcare and assist in keeping our communities safe.  The tax code serves as a moral document of our collective values.

stop giveawaysYet, Illinois is only one of nine states that insists that everyone be taxed at the same rate (a “flat” tax), as if we all have equal ability to pay.  Part of striving for justice is recognizing and fighting against systems and structures that create and perpetuate inequality.  Our tax system is one of them and it is time that we fight for a change.

JCUA has partnered with the “A Better Illinois” campaign to ask our General Assembly for a constitutional amendment to create a more just tax system.  Right now, the campaign is calling on leaders of faith to endorse the campaign, recognizing that our lives are lived for others, most specifically the widow, the orphan and the vulnerable.


To help JCUA and A Better Illinois make an impact and create change, we need you talk to your Rabbi about the continued inequality and offer the chance to change it.  Ask your Rabbi to add their voice to our online petition asking for a constitutional amendment to create a fair, just and progressive tax.

A fair tax would:

  •  Allow for higher rates on those with higher incomes, and lower rates for those with lower incomes.
  • Provide resources for our schools and ensure that services to the vulnerable in our communities are maintained.
  • Stimulate economic growth, create jobs, and provide a means for Illinois to repair our crumbling infrastructure.
  • Provide desperately needed revenue for our state that has been lost because corporations have used loopholes to avoid paying their fair share.


An Inside Look into Immigration Court Proceedings

December 4, 2012

by Vadim Gerhsteyn
JCUA intern

JCUA’s Vadim Gershteyn sat as an observer in Immigration Detention Court as part of the “Court Watch” program. In this article he tells the stories he observed, including fathers separated from their children, trials conducted through computer screens, and detainees with no guaranteed legal representation.


immigration-detention-2The immigrant experience in the United States is at the foundation of shared history and a place of special importance for the Jewish community. On Monday, November 26, 2012 I attended a Court Watch training that allowed him to be an non-partial observer in Detained Immigrant Courts. The program was set up by the “Sisters of Mercy” and “Sisters and Brothers of Immigrants” in order to allow people to bear witness to the trials and stand in solidarity with detained immigrants. Each year, more than 400,000 immigrants are detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), many of whom have no criminal histories and are being detained on civil charges.


In one trial, a legal permanent resident (LPR) named Jose was applying for voluntary self-deportation after being arrested with fifteen grams of cocaine, a felony that includes intention to distribute. His wife’s moving testimony told the story of a good husband, caring father of four, and gainfully employed member of the community struggling with drug addiction. Now in drug treatment classes, and despite living in Illinois for over a decade, Jose was facing deportation. The judge gave Jose leniency for self-deportation, which allows him to leave on his own accord and reapply to enter the United States. However, reentry is not guaranteed, and the court may have separated Jose from his family (four of whom are U.S. citizens) due to the disease of addiction.

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Reporting on Recommendations for the Chicago Housing Authority

December 3, 2012

by Lauren Goldstein
JCUA intern

The Chicago public housing residents’ Central Advisory Council (CAC) recently published their recommendations to the Chicago Housing Authority. These recommendations shed light on systemic problems, and the need soar need for resident voices in the discussion about the future of public housing. JCUA’s Lauren Goldstein gives some background and explains the five main recommendations.

Demolition at Cabrini Green

Demolition at Cabrini Green

On November 30, 2012, a vast, diverse, and energetic crowd came together at the University of Illinois at Chicago Student Center to bear witness to an incredibly powerful presentation of a hopeful plan created by the Chicago public housing residents’ Central Advisory Council (CAC).

The CAC is a tenant organization recognized by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development that serves to represent public housing residents and provide resident input into the CHA’s policies via the participation of fourteen Local Advisory Council offices and seven mixed income communities.

The CAC presented their “Strategies and Recommendations Report,” which is a thorough set of recommendations for the Chicago Housing Authority to consider when moving forward with the Plan for Transformation 2.0.

This innovative report (which can be accessed here) was prepared by Lucas Greene Associates, LLC in partnership with Chicago Jobs Council, Heather D. Parish, Prim Lawrence Group, UIC Nathalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement, and We The People Media, but it was really made possible by the strong, persistent, enduring, and hardworking residents of the CHA who tirelessly work to have their voices heard, their needs represented and met, and their families, friends, and neighbors given the rights they deserve as human beings and fellow residents of Chicago.

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What Happens to Displaced Public Housing Residents?

November 19, 2012

by Lauren Goldstein
Advocacy and Community Organizing Intern


As part of JCUA’s work with the Chicago Housing Initiative’s “Lease Up!” campaign, we have been engaged in research on public housing in Chicago. Specifically, we are gathering data on where residents move when they are displaced from their homes due to demolition or redevelopment, and what those towns look like.

Given that part of the goal of the Plan for Transformation involves creating a less isolating environment for residents both racially and economically, we wanted to find out if these goals are being met. The question is: Where are Chicago’s public housing residents moving, and what kinds of opportunities exist once they arrive there.

The Facts

study done at UIC shows that between 2000 and 2007, 55% of moves within Illinois of public housing residents occurred between the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) and the Housing Authority of Cook County (HACC).  We looked into what towns in Cook County do have public housing developments in them, so that we could then paint a better picture of what life looks like in these new communities.

Chicago’s public housing residents moved to many different towns in Cook County, and we learned that many of them, over time, have in fact become racially segregated. Many of these towns…

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Reminding Our Reps that Fiscal Health Requires a More Sensible Tax Approach

November 19, 2012

by Vadim Gershteyn
Advocacy and Community Organizing Intern

With Illinois deficit the worst in the nation, at an astounding $43.8 billion in the red, policymakers have to make difficult decisions about our nation’s fiscal responsibilities. Until recently, however, the responsibility has been shifted mostly onto the most poor and most vulnerable. On Friday, Nov. 9th, Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (JCUA) intern Vadim Y. Gershteyn joined Roots of Justice, IIRON, and others outside of Dick Durbin’s office in protesting proposed cuts to Medicaid and Medicare as part of the budget reduction strategy put forward by Congress. Medicare is a popular, highly-efficient program that remains solvent and fully-funded for at least twenty to eighty years. Medicaid is many people’s only safeguard against serious illness or even death. The efforts to privatize either of these programs (especially Medicare) would mean less medical coverage for our seniors and at-risk populations.

At a townhall meeting attended by Roots of Justice, IIRON, and other groups, our federal representatives Jan Schakowsky, Mike Quigley, and Danny Davis declared their commitment to blocking austerity measures in balancing the budget.  Senator Dick Durbin has not signed on to the measure, backed by Majority Leader Harry Reid, which bars cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. In balancing the budget, there has been far less support for raising taxes on the very wealthy, who now pay only a 15%-20% effective tax rate, lower than the rate for many middle-income Americans. There has also been little Congressional support for a “Robin Hood” tax, which levies a tax on financial transactions that can regulate high-risk transactions and brings much-needed revenue to the federal government.

On the state level, we can help bridge the fiscal gap by supporting a Fair Tax initiative in Illinois that will shift the burden from the poor and middle-class to the very wealthy (read more about JCUA’s position on the fair tax initiative).

The responsibility for the economic collapse caused by the banking and financial industry cannot be levied on the very poor and the powerless. We cannot stand idly by as the people most hurt by the 2008 financial meltdown make sacrifices to balance the budget while corporations and the very wealthy do not pay their fair share. It is a commitment that dates back to our prophets, to take care of the poor and make sure the burden of social responsibility does not fall on the most vulnerable. Sen. Dick Durbin should join our representatives in saying no to cuts to our social safety net and no to austerity.


Want to intern with the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs? Click here for more information.

JCUA Endorses Campaign for Graduated Income Tax in Illinois

October 22, 2012

On October 3, 2012, JCUA’s policy committee met with Citizen Action Illinois to discuss the need for a graduated income tax in Illinois. After learning about the state of the tax system in Illinois today, the JCUA has chosen to join Citizen Action Illinois and many other community groups in endorsing the Fair Tax Campaign.


Some Numbers

Currently, Illinois has a flat income tax rate, which given Illinois’ budget deficits and funding needs, is inadequate also unfair. Consider the following numbers:

  • It has been reported that in 2011, the bottom 20% of households in Illinois bore quite a larger tax burden than the top 20% of Illinois households, as they paid twice as much of their income in state and local taxes than the top 20%.
  • The total tax burden felt by those with an average income of less than $18,000 is 13.7%; however, the tax burden felt by those earning $500,000+ per year is only 6.5%…yes, the group with an average income of $2,084,700 per year bears only a 6.5% tax burden [1].

To put it plainly, those with the lowest incomes end up paying far beyond their means, while the wealthiest households in our state pay what amounts to being a drop in the bucket of their income. Illinois is simply asking too much from those families who are struggling the most in today’s economy.

What Are Other States Doing?

What we’re asking for is nothing new – our neighboring states currently function with more progressive tax systems, and it is not coincidental that these states’ budgets put our state budget to shame. Some facts:

  • 34 of the 41 states that currently employ an income tax system have graduated rates already.
  • Analyses show that if Illinois’s tax base paid Iowa’s income tax rates, Illinois would raise $6 billion more a year, and over half of the taxpayers in Illinois would experience a tax cut of 24% on average. Imagine what this state could do with so much more revenue
  • To make matters even more pressing, the flat income tax increase currently in place will expire in 2015, and taxes will drop from 5% to 3.75%, taking with it about $4 billion in revenue for the state. If you think things look bad now for social services in our state, imagine what they could look like with $4 billion less.
  • By pressuring the state to amend the constitution and incorporate a more fair tax, Illinois would not only build revenue, but according to the non-partisan Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, this would also cut taxes for up to 94% of Illinois residents! (Learn More Here)

How Do We Get This Done?

This certainly is a huge battle to fight, but we feel it is also hugely important, and have therefore chosen to join hands with the Fair Tax Campaign to promote a more fair tax system. To do this requires a constitutional amendment. To get a constitutional amendment on the ballot requires 60% of the General Assembly’s approval, and the ballot proposition must be approved by 60% of voters. This means that the next step in this process is to win legislative and then voter approval. We are ready to stand by and do what we can to bring about a more just tax system in our state, and we feel we are on our way to a more fair future for Illinois. Stay tuned for the next steps in this campaign!



[1] Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy, Who Pays? A Distributional Analysis of Tax Systems in All 50 States, p. 42, Third Edition, November 2009. Note: this table shows 2007 data updated to reflect permanent changes in Illinois tax law enacted through January, 2012.

JCUA Joins Campaign Demanding the City Lease Up of Vacant Housing Units

October 15, 2012

by Lauren Goldstein, Community and Policy Intern
(2nd year student at the University of Chicago, Social Service Administration MA program)

As winter nears, it is evermore concerning that there are currently over 68,000 low-income families and senior citizens waiting for the Chicago Housing Authority to afford them a place to call home. What’s more, CHA has failed to lease over 2000 vacant units of public housing across Chicago. These units could, and should, be providing homes to the people who desperately need them. This is why the JCUA is a member of the Chicago Housing Initiative’s “Lease-Up!” campaign.


Lauren Goldstein

It’s that time of year again here in Chicago – the leaves are falling, the temperatures are dropping, and darkness is falling earlier and earlier. Before winter sets in, it is of grave importance that the 68,000+ low-income families and senior citizens who have been waiting for housing from the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) are afforded a place to call home. Given the CHA’s failure to properly and efficiently address the thousands of vacant units currently shuttered across the city and allow some of the 60,000 families who remain on the wait-list (as of March 2012) to lease these units, the JCUA has decided to join the Chicago Housing Initiative’s (CHI) “Lease-Up!” campaign. We firmly believe that housing is a human right, and have chosen to take a stand.

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