Chicago: Can You Spare a Job?

December 19, 2023

Mayor Brandon Johnson's 21st century Hooverville

Amid the tiny home craze over a decade ago, HGTV network featured a show that ran for eight seasons called "Tiny House, Big Living". First aired in 2014, the program featured Millennials venturing forward with plans to reduce their living space to no more than 180 square feet. The design challenge was to have a living room, sleeping area, kitchen, and bathroom in a structure that is smaller than 18 feet by 10 feet. Why? Some chose to do it for environmental reasons, others wanted a small home on wheels, still others looked at it as a way to live debt free.

In essence, it is the same as living in your kid’s playhouse while paring down material belongings to the bare minimum.

It is in this vein that Chicago entrepreneur Tim Swanson, founder and CEO of Inherent L3C, hopes to make his mark for the illegal immigrants living on the streets or police station floors as winter approaches. According to Swanson, when interviewed by WGN, “everyone deserves a dignified home.”

The structures are built on the West Side and moved to the site, presumably empty city lots or parking lots. Each structure would be 80 square feet and include electricity for heating and a fan for cooling. There is no running water in these “microhomes,” so residents will need to use a composting toilet or mobile facilities provided by the city. However, Swanson hopes Chicago will buy into the idea of microtome communities whereby for each 20 homes, there would be a “community hub” with showers, kitchens, and laundry facilities.

Because these microhomes are built comparable to actual homes, they should withstand the elements — a savage winter or strong gusts of wind — more favorably than tents. According to Austin Weekly News, Swanson compared these homes to “cabins or campsites” and the structures are meant to be temporary housing until more permanent plans are made. As one migrant family moves out, another one moves in.

A drawback to Swanson’s vision is that each microhome comes at a cost: $20,000. This expense would be in addition to the almost $30 million contract Chicago signed in September with GardaWorld for what Mayor Brandon Johnson called “winterized base camps.” An even greater hinderance is the fact that Chicago has had its own underclass on the South and West sides for an eternity. A cycle of poverty that has sucked the life out of residents living there, the struggle to sustain amid the penury has been real and receiving government largesse is all many have ever known. Add to this the new illegal immigrant population, and the anger and frustration of Chicago’s own is compounded.

Moreover, those whose tax dollars are being spent on people from third world countries, the undereducated, and poverty stricken are angry and frustrated by voters who have continued to fall under the hypnotic influence of Democrats’ incantation for close to a century. The cycle continues without abatement as budget proposals and debt continue to rise. Those who can leave Chicago do so in droves.

It does not have to be this way, of course. We have seen this all before with the Great Depression. Though there is a belief that government job programs helped end the financial woes of the 1930s, this is untrue. Rather it was World War II and America’s massive war production that fostered more prosperity.

Yet, we can see a repeat attempt by Mayor Johnson to create jobs for teens and expand the size and scope of government. This method to combat poverty did not work to end the Great Depression, and it won’t work today. Governments — be them federal, state, or local — are bloated, full of bureaucracy, and deeply mismanaged. Additionally, tax monies for the programs end up in the hands of the politically connected rather than delivered to those most in need.

A solution for vanquishing poverty is for Mayor Johnson and the Democratic Socialists to get out of the way. Despite Johnson and his progressive allies’ demagoguery and insistence, government does not create jobs. Government does play a role, but it is limited to either creating fertile soil for businesses to grow with incentives or stop those who use too much DDT. The no brainer choice is not part of the Chicago way, unfortunately. And those who have will continue to have; those who lack will continue to lack.

Tim Swanson’s attempts to shelter migrants evokes memories of the 1936 film classic, "My Man Godfrey". The film tells the story of Godfrey Parke, who was born into old money, but due to a broken relationship leaves his wealth to his ex-wife. Left with the feeling there was nothing worth living for, he went to the East River with the intent of ending his life. Instead, after experiencing an epiphany on the riverbank, Godfrey finds renewed strength of spirit because of all the “forgotten men” whose lives had been destroyed by the effects of the stock market crisis yet had refused to abandon hope. Deciding to live among men who, even in despair and living in shacks in a garbage dump, retain optimism for the future changes Godfrey; and, through fortunate turns of events, Godfrey eventually brings relief to his forlorn friends.

There is something about Godfrey’s empathy with the forgotten men of the 1930s that is inviting. Today's liberal movie critics would highlight the failure of capitalism and class systems in the film. Nevertheless, that’s not what the message the film intends to deliver to the audience. The Great Depression was a leveler of class. For those who had money in the stock market and lived in grand mansions one day could be found constructing make-shift, lean-tos in garbage dumps by the river the next. The Great Depression affected everyone and did not discriminate.

There is also a powerful “do unto others” theme to the film, for Godfrey is able to repay the family which hired him as a butler. However, the substance of the film is that most are only one paycheck away from ruin. We can either cash in our chips and capitulate in challenging times or keep fighting with hope, recognizing prosperity is just around the corner. Godfrey realizes that there is not much difference between the haves and the have nots. While there will always be an underclass in a free-market system, pride and identity comes with having an occupation. After all, when you have been introduced to someone for the first time, the follow up question becomes: "What do you do for a living?"

Employment is not merely about earning an income. There is respectability that comes with an occupation, knowing you have earned your possessions. Even though "My Man Godfrey" was made in 1936, human nature has not changed. Charity is fine to help people get on their feet, but the feeling of self-worth does not come from handouts; and, a little movie made almost 90 years ago can still hold some meaningful truths today.

Tip a hat to entrepreneur Tim Swanson and his 20 employees for seizing an opportunity while providing a needed service. However, an 80-square-foot roof over your head paid for by tax dollars will not fix the underlying problems of the homeless, the poor, or the illegal immigrants. Instead, these structures merely reflect what all Chicago politicians already supply — an ability to kick the can down the road.

Chicagoans do not need CHA projects or microhouses that, in essence, mimic the lean-tos in "My Man Godfrey" with more “dignified” façades. Instead, we need to stop being a sanctuary city, enforce our laws, entice businesses to come to Chicago, and demand that any welfare merely supplements an income. Then and only then will there be any progress for able-bodied South and West siders to gain self-respect and set in motion a time when happy days are here again.

Disappointingly, with the current mayor and his city council, Chicagoans will continue to live in Hooverville.

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