With mounting evidence that lead poisoning results in lower test scores, more children repeating grades, and worse, why has so little been done in Chicago to reverse the damage?
Patricia Robinson recalls a time when she fondly watched her son, Michael, then a toddler, sit in the windowsill of her Englewood home, completely engrossed. Matchbox car in hand, he would run the toy back and forth over the brown painted surface, making little vrooms and beep-beeps as he played.
Ten years later, Robinson’s warmth for that moment has long faded. That was where it started—where she believes Michael ingested the lead-filled dust that poisoned him, leaving him with lifelong learning disabilities. “There isn’t a day I don’t think about it,” Robinson says. “It’s taken over my life.”
Doctors, organic food, costly tutors, special ed teachers—Robinson has tried whatever she can to help her son get ahead, despite the difficulties he’s faced because of lead poisoning. But Michael’s struggles to learn, to pay attention in school, and to get along with other children continue.
While there’s no doubt that the number of children affected by lead poisoning has dropped precipitously since the 70s (when lead was taken out of paint and gasoline), Chicago has the distinction of being home to more cases of lead toxicity than any large city in the U.S.
A recent study out of the University of Illinois at Chicago examined the blood lead levels of third graders between 2003 and 2006—students now likely to be roaming the halls at CPS high schools. It turns out that at three-quarters of Chicago’s 464 elementary schools, the students’ average blood lead level was high enough to be considered poisoned, according to standards set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And although lead poisoning is rarely mentioned in the debate on how to improve schools, the UIC research shows just how much it may be damaging kids’ ability to succeed. According to the study, lead-poisoned students in Chicago Public Schools are more likely to fail the third grade and score notably lower on their yearly standardized tests.
Lead paint, which was banned in 1978, is still present in thousands of older homes and apartment buildings across Chicago, particularly on the south and west sides, where the housing stock is older. And though lead hazards are clearly identifiable and inexpensive to eradicate, the city’s budget for lead-poisoning prevention has plummeted in recent years.
“Lead poisoning is one of the few causes of social and learning problems that we know how to solve,” said Anita Weinberg, director of Lead Safe Housing Initiatives at Civitas ChildLaw Center at Loyola University. “We can resolve this problem within a generation, but it’s not a priority for the city.”
As money has dried up, the burden to get the word out has fallen on parents like Robinson. She tells parents about the dangers of lead poisoning every day as she helps Englewood residents obtain health care access and child care through her work at Children’s Home and Aid.
“I try to warn them,” says Robinson, who figured out what happened to her son through bloodwork and environmental tests of their home. “I want to let them know so they won’t have to go through what I have gone through.”
This story was originally published in the Chicago Reader on Oct. 31, 2012, and was paid for by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust for the Local Reporting Awards Initiative.
Illinois celebrates its program to steer state contracts to businesses owned by minorities, women and people with a disability. But a closer look shows the state may not be fulfilling its goals.
Shaking hands with officials from the Illinois Lottery, Bob Dale felt like a winner. No, he didn’t win the jackpot or even one of those scratch-off cards. But his business, R.J. Dale Advertising, had just sealed a $100 million contract with the Illinois Department of Revenue, one of the largest contracts awarded to a black-owned business in Illinois.
But looking back on his big win now, Dale doesn’t feel so lucky. Low commission rates and sky-high legal fees from state audits meant R.J. Dale Advertising didn’t even make a profit for being the lottery’s chief advertising agency.
“Quite honestly, it damn near put us out of business,” he said.
The lottery, on the other hand, fared well. During its five-year contract term, revenue from the lottery increased by $490 million. Dale and hiscolleagues hoped that success would generate new business.
As it turned out, the lottery contract opened no new doors for the firm. Major corporations “didn’t care about the phenomenal success we had,” Dale said. “They just weren’t interested in hiring a black-owned business.”
Many minority business owners say they still face significant discrimination in the marketplace. To help remedy that, some states, including Illinois, have created programs to make sure that some government contracts go to diverse businesses.
Dale’s contract was part of the Business Enterprise Program, Illinois’ effort to award government contracts to businesses owned by minorities, women and people with a disability. But a Chicago Reporter investigation found that even though the State of Illinois sets lofty goals and touts its overall successes, some of its departments aren’t even coming close to the program’s goal of steering 20 percent of all contracts to target businesses.
Between fiscal years 2007 and 2010, 13 out of the 28 state departments with at least $10 million in their contract budget during those years failed to meet the program’s 20 percent goal, including five of the six departments with the largest budgets. Four of these departments even fell short of the 12 percent minimum required by law.
And even when departments are meeting their goals, the money is often going to one big contract with one single firm, like Dale’s lottery contract. Forty-five percent of state departments awarded more than half of their contract dollars for the program to just one firm.
Dale said every time those goals aren’t met, it means minority communities miss out. If every department had met its goal, businesses owned by minorities, women and people with a disability in Illinois would have earned another $586 million between fiscal years 2007 and 2010.
“The black unemployment rate is at least twice as high as the general market, maybe even three times as high,” Dale said. “Every time we don’t get a contract, that’s jobs that black people don’t get.”
An increasing number of people are turning to bankruptcy for a fresh start, but many are leaving themselves susceptible to more debt by opting for a Chapter 13 protection, which has a high failure rate.
Freeman Hess sits at the dining room table in his brick bungalow in Roseland on Chicago’s South Side. At 78, his gray hair is thin and fuzzy, like the coating of a peach, but his arms are muscular. He hasn’t lost the physical strength he acquired from operating a forklift for Cook County for 43 years. But in all his years of work, starting off picking cotton in Brownsville, Tenn., and coming to Chicago for better opportunities, he never imagined retirement being so stressful.
“I manage,” says Hess, his jaw tense. “But sometimes I just don’t have the money to pay my bills. They are taking it all.”
“They” is a collection of people—his lawyers, his creditors and the bankruptcy trustee. Hess filed for bankruptcy two years ago, and ever since, he’s been paying $1,090 a month, the majority of his income, to try and get rid of his debt, with two more years to go.
With the economic downturn, many Cook County residents are facing a similar situation: less money coming in, and more bills than they can handle. And more people, like Hess, are turning to bankruptcy for relief.
But many, particularly those in black communities, have been filing Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which carries a high risk of failure, leaving themselves vulnerable to end up with yet another mountain of debt, instead of a fresh start.
According to new data supplied to The Chicago Reporter by the Chicago-based Woodstock Institute, nearly a third of all bankruptcies in Cook County were filed under Chapter 13. Among filers living in communities where African Americans made up more than 80 percent of the population, the rate was much higher, with nearly a half of bankruptcies filed under Chapter 13.