By: Mark Glennon*
Getting a head start in a race doesn’t help much if five out of six other runners get the same head start. Yet that’s how it works for Chicago’s set-aside programs for minorities, women and others.
Eighty-five percent of Chicagoans are in favored categories getting preference in city contracting.
Here are the numbers:
Women, too, get contract set-asides. Since half of that 33% is female, that takes the portion of the population not eligible for set-asides – white males – down to about 16.5%.
There’s further to go. Set-asides also prefer the disabled. Chicago says 23% of its population reports having a disability, though ADA 25 Chicago, an advocacy group, puts the number lower at 10.9%. Even using the lower number takes the portion of Chicagoans who can’t get a set-aside below 15% — white guys with no disability. Preferences go to the other 85%.
Now Mayor Lori Lightfoot wants to create a set-aside for gay city contractors in addition to existing earmarks, as reported by the Chicago Sun-Times last week. An earlier study found that about 7.5% of the city’s adult population identifies as gay. If they were given a set-aside, only 13.6% of the population – straight, white, males with no handicap — would be left without access to a set-aside. In other words, over 86% of Chicagoans would be entitled to preferential treatment when bidding for city contracts.
However, the city’s gay population isn’t on board, as the Sun-Times reported. Some apparently see that the whole system is getting crazy. “The fact that the LGBT community has been discriminated against for decades does warrant a conversation. But I just don’t understand how [Lightfoot] can ensure that it’s not taking away from others who have also been disenfranchised.” That’s from Chicago Alderman Ray Lopez, a Gay Caucus member.
For now, the numbers above arguably overstate part of the issue because bidding for contracts isn’t limited to city residents and the white population elsewhere is much higher than in Chicago. That is, minority bidders compete against bidders from other places where the portion of whites is higher.
That’s changing, however. Demographers say it’s about twenty-five years until the nation’s non-Hispanic white population shrinks to 49%. The fact remains, however, that the portion of Chicagoans from whom set-asides are taken is mighty small.
Special status for 85% isn’t the only thing wrong with Chicago’s set-aside program. For starters, it’s a racket for some white males. The Sun-Times stated what everybody in Chicago knows: “Over the years, Chicago has seen countless examples of minority business fraud. Women and minorities served as ‘fronts’ for white men.”
It’s impossible to administer rationally. What about the growing number of mixed race residents, and what do you do with those who fit into two or more preferred groups?
More fundamentally, it’s supposed to be about disadvantage, but it doesn’t accurately address disadvantage. Chicago now has many second or third generation nonwhites from middle or upper income families. It also has plenty of white males who’ve been at least as disadvantaged as many nonwhites. Maybe they grew up in broken homes or with drug addicted parents. Maybe they overcame severe health problems. Maybe they’ve been through extreme poverty and horrible schools.
And as for the members of Chicago’s preferred classes who really are disadvantaged, the preferences obviously don’t help much when the same preference goes to four out of five people in the city.
Barack Obama once called for major changes on how preferences work. He said he wanted government to craft a policy “in such a way where some of our children who are advantaged aren’t getting more favorable treatment than a poor white kid who has struggled more.” He cited his daughters as examples of those who shouldn’t get preferences.
Who could argue with that? That was before he became president, however. He dropped the idea after taking office. Chicago went in the opposite direction with its set-aside program.
It goes back to the point Alderman Lopez raised: How can you ensure set-asides are “not taking away from others who have also been disenfranchised”?
You can’t. Not under Chicago’s set-aside program, especially when 85% of population gets automatic preference based on rigid formulas using immutable traits not necessarily reflecting disadvantage.
*Mark Glennon is founder of Wirepoints.
This article was updated to add the chart and correct the number of non-Hispanic whites in Chicago.