Chicago Mayor's Snow Job

June 10, 2024

Instead of growing government, Brandon Johnson should revive volunteerism

The City of Chicago has long taken responsibility for plowing Chicago’s streets, yet the responsibility of removing snow and ice from sidewalks has fallen on residents, landlords, and businesses. It was 2012 when then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel rolled out an ambitious plan to keep sidewalks in residential neighborhoods clear after snowfalls. At the time, Emanuel’s plan, known as “Adopt-A-Sidewalk,” was modeled to enlist volunteers willing to perform an act of care.  

In his stirring call to volunteers to bring relief and support to Chicago’s elderly and disabled in the season of winter, Emanuel asked residents sound in body and limb to make a small sacrifice of time to shovel for the civic good. Despite Emanuel’s appeal to volunteerism, too few were willing to perform good work voluntarily and the program was dropped in 2017.

Having learned the lesson a voluntary snow shoveling initiative failed to attract participants, Mayor Brandon Johnson has revived the concept with a new pilot program, “Plow the Sidewalks,” which will offer free snow removal services for residences and some apartment complexes. A proposal fleshed out in close collaboration with Plow the Sidewalks Coalition and Aldermen Gilbert Villegas (36) and Daniel La Spata (1), Johnson stated “Plow the Sidewalks” is “about equity, justice, and the appropriate provision of public services.”

Under Johnson’s proposal, four 1.5 square-mile zones — one zone each in Chicago’s North, West, Southwest, and South Sides — were selected for the pilot. After critical evaluation and review of neighborhood demographics by the mayor and a working group of city departments, each of the four zones were designated after consideration for communities with a large concentration of seniors, transit riders, households without cars, and disabled residents.

Among the specifics of the pilot, groups of workers would remove snow from walks only in instances in which snow accumulation exceeds two or more inches over a 24-hour period. While Mayor Johnson has assigned the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) to supervise the pilot, Chicago will rely on both city employees and external service providers to perform the snow shoveling. Of the few specifics released in the glossy report on snow removal, one thorny detail is cost: Though Johnson is peddling the program as “free,” his optimistic estimation places the asking price for the pilot to be between $1.1-$3.5 million.

As with much of what Mayor Johnson proposes for Chicago, numerous questions linger over his snow shoveling pilot. Paramount among the concerns is cost. Though only a pilot with a low $3.5 million price tag, with Chicago in the throes of budget deficit — a $538 million shortfall hovers menacingly — is spending up to $3.5 million to remove snow fiscally sound? Johnson, of course, is peddling “free” snow removal as essential, but with a yawning hole in the city’s budget, Chicago cannot afford to add to its bloated budget.

Second, basic economics tells us to for a public provision to be justified, a failure in the market must be located. No such breakdown exists. If Johnson and his working group had concluded Chicago was suffering a chronic and agonizing shortage of residential snow removal services, or a dearth of industrious youths offering the service part-time, the mayor would have a basis for the pilot. However, neither of these conditions exist. In the absence of any rationale for a city-run snow shoveling program, Johnson has simply resorted to stirring language devised to pander to emotion or portraying residents in each zone selected for the pilot as critically vulnerable.

Aside from the pilot programs flawed economics, a moral hazard exists with Johnson’s snow removal pilot. Whether it be a willful or ideological blindness, Johnson is oblivious to the fact a city-run snow removal program erodes at the cherished norm residents do indeed play a role in the maintenance of community in which they live. The shredding of the norm of civic responsibility, residents should clear sidewalks of ice and snow out of consideration for their neighbors, particularly out of delicacy to neighbors who are at-risk or with limited mobility.

Mayor Johnson’s snow removal pilot may sound nice and accommodating, but underneath the good intent lies a fiction. A man with a disdain for the virtues of small government, Mayor Johnson’s aim is to eventually expand the range of the snow removal program to serve a larger segment of the city’s population. Ultimately, snow removal will be made available to any resident seeking to enroll and the program will grow and eventually absorbed into Chicago’s tangled bureaucracy.

Johnson does also have other motivations beside his desire to expand the size of government. A stealth attempt to inflate the city’s unionized workforce, should the snow removal program proceed to become another part of Chicago’s social services blob, Johnson is certain to do away with outside provider to protect union positions. With the expansion of unionized workers, Chicago will be confronted with higher wages for the additional, full-time laborers and an increase burden to Chicago’s stressed pensions.

Mayor Johnson’s focus on using the “full force of government” to address snow removal is overlooking the importance of residents setting healthy norms. If Mayor Johnson was being earnest about addressing a minor need for a minimal percentage of elderly or residents of limited mobility, a more laudable idea would be to issue an appeal volunteerism and mutual aid to residents in the name of neighborhood comity.

There was a time when religious groups and local fraternal organizations performed volunteer duties for residents. However, this great tradition is nearly obsolete, due in large part to government assuming a greater role in our daily lives. Snow removal for the elderly and individuals of limited mobility is a unique and rare opportunity for the mayor to revive this custom. Neighbors helping neighbors, through volunteering to assist the elderly and disabled, the communal bonds of affection, trust, familiarity, and friendship are strengthened.

While Johnson’s plan for the snow removal pilot is misguided and his true ambition is to enlarge the unionized city workforce, if government is to play a role in snow removal, it should be limited to fostering volunteerism. It is standard for aldermanic offices to coordinate volunteers for special events in the ward, to fulfill the need for crossing guards, to hand out donations for the needy, or for park clean-ups. These duties are accomplished without pay and all contribute to maintaining and enhancing character of the ward. If government is to play any role in snow removal, the extent should be coordinating volunteers, posting notices on city and ward websites appealing for volunteers, and perhaps covering costs for tools to complete snow removal.

Expanding size and scope of government is not the solution to Chicago’s problems. Chicago simply cannot afford it. While snow removal is a public good, it is insignificant in comparison to the challenges Chicago faces. Rather than create a public snow removal program at taxpayer expense, Mayor Johnson could revive the custom of self-sufficiency attempted by Rahm Emanuel and call on residents to engage in community building on the basis of a daily act of care for a neighbor. Should the mayor invoke volunteerism, Johnson could arouse a sense of civic purpose in residents who believe in the tradition of local behavior and place and who are also courteous, civil, helpful, and considerate enough to serve others.

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