Chicago Ought to Love the Rich

February 15, 2024

Chicago's most prosperous have made the most special and meaningful contributions to the city

There is an old yarn that circulates around the internet every couple of years about 10 people who meet for dinner. The table orders, eats, drinks, and has a wonderful time. Everyone has the same meal and drinks the same wine. When the check comes the cost is $100, or $10 per person.

The two wealthiest folks at the table understand that they are more well-off than the others. Further, they genuinely appreciated the meal and the good company of their friends. So, between the two of them, they put $60 — effectively paying $30 per person — on the table to apply to the bill.

The next two (the third and fourth richest people at the table), had a good time as well and also recognize their own good fortune. They realize that $10 per person might be a little tough for the poorer folks. So, between the two of them, they put $42.50 on the table. Each paying more than double the actual cost of their own meal.

Now the fifth person looks in his wallet and finds two one-dollar bills. Digging in the front pocket, he also finds two quarters next to his keys. He sheepishly puts his $2.50 on the pile of money on the table.

The sixth, seventh, and eighth folks contribute nothing for the dinner bill.

The ninth person, realizing that there is more money than necessary on the table, quietly slips $5 off the pile. He keeps $2 for himself and hands $3 to the tenth person, the group member with the least means.

At this point in the story, the seventh person pokes the eighth person and declares: “How come the ninth and tenth got to walk away with cash? I want in on that too.”

Hearing this, the fifth says: “Well at least I contributed something. You didn’t contribute anything.” “Yes, but you have more than we do” shout ninth and tenth. Now sixth chimes in: “You know, if first and second kicked in a little bit more fifth wouldn’t have to pay anything.”

The argument goes on and on, eventually ruining the camaraderie built over the evening.

Weeks later, the same group meets again for dinner. However, this time, the richest person stays home. Now, the nine gathered are left with splitting a $90 bill. Second is now the richest and puts $22.50 on the pile. Third and fourth together toss $40.50 into the pot. Fifth kicks in $2.

Now second, third, fourth, and fifth — the four who have paid — are looking at the five other dinner guests who have not turned over a farthing. Friends sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth all gaze at each other. There is $65 sitting on the table. The five remaining people each had a $10 dinner and between them, they need to come up with $25. Nevertheless, the nine men cannot can’t come up with $5 each among them.

Now sixth announces: “Last time I ate for free. Why do I have to kick in any money?”

Ninth complains: “You think you got it bad? Last time I got to walk away with money.”

The allegory concludes predictably. There is a great kerfuffle. Everyone blames the wealthiest man for not showing up. However, in his absence, the diners are reduced to yelling at second, who is secretly thinking to himself: “I’m not showing up next time. These people are ungrateful.”

The fable is meant to be instructional. It is a somewhat accurate model of the U.S. income tax system. The moral of the story is that while it’s easy to pick on the affluent, everyone should appreciate what they actually contribute, which is far more than their “fair share.”

While, thankfully, Chicago doesn't have an income tax — a municipal income tax constantly on activists' minds — perhaps a similar analysis can be conducted based on Cook County property taxes. Who is paying the bulk of the tax burden locally, here in Cook County?

For this analysis, we look at three city blocks: One in a poor area, one in a middle-class area, and one in a neighborhood inhabited by Chicago's plutocrats. The amount of “property” is the same in each analysis. The question is which group is contributing more and by how much. In order for the analysis to be fair, only 100 percent residential blocks were considered. (Commercial property is taxed at three-times the rate of residential property.)

If we glance at one city block in South Lawndale, consider the 1900 block of South Sawyer. According to the Cook County Assessor’s Office, there are 44 PINs (Property Index Number) between 1900-1999 South Sawyer. Entering those PINs into the database at the Treasurer’s Office shows that for the 2022 tax year (payable in 2023) those properties were taxed a total of $53,271.

In comparison, one can look at one city block in Bucktown. One block suitable for examination, the 1900 block of North Wood, has only 25 PINs, yet those properties had taxes totaling $522,190.

Lastly, consider the 1900 block of North Orchard in Lincoln Park. Because of some consolidation, this block shows 68 PINs. However not all of them are active. Nevertheless, for the 2022 tax year, properties on this block paid a whopping $2,249,083.

This one block in Lincoln Park generates 4.3 times the revenue of one block in Bucktown and 42.2 times the revenue of a block in South Lawndale.

It’s also probably worth mentioning that there were eight properties on South Sawyer which were totally exempt from property taxes (for reasons unknown.) Two properties were in “delinquent” status.

Chicago ought to love the rich.

Nevertheless, the contributions of the rich extend far beyond mere property taxes.

Folks who have been around a while may remember a place called Chicago Children’s Hospital. It was an unsightly light brown building in Lincoln Park, which was built in the 1940s and it showed. A mass of cinderblock and linoleum tiles. Parking was across the street and a structure built sometime during the Carter administration. Then along came some rich people who opened their checkbooks.

From the crumbs that fell from the hands of Chicago's upper-class came the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. This is a beautiful state-of-the-art facility with outdoor spaces and world-renowned medical care for children.

Chicago’s rich made that happen; all of Chicago’s residents benefit.

Similarly, there used to be a medical facility called the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. It wasn’t quite as run down as the old Children’s Hospital, but it was nothing compared to the brand-new half-billion-dollar facility now known as Shirley Ryan Ability Lab.

Chicago’s rich made that happen too; all of Chicago’s residents benefit.

At Northwestern and at Rush the story repeats itself: Walking through their lobbies one can see walls of dedication to the thousands of wealthy people who have donated hundreds-of-millions of dollars to make those facilities what they are today.

The contribution of Chicago’s rich extends beyond the realm of medicine.

The Field Museum was started by Marshall Field. It’s only able to continue operating through the generosity of wealthy Chicago residents who donate millions of dollars each year to support the cause. Same goes for the Museum of Science and Industry, the Chicago Art Institute, the John G. Shedd Aquarium, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, the Adler Planetarium, Lincoln Park Zoo, and dozens of other museums and galleries around the city.

Chicago’s rich people make that happen; all of Chicago’s residents benefit.

Then we have the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Lyric Opera House, and all of the other performance houses in the city. Thumb through any playbill and you will see pages and pages of sponsors whose donations make “the arts” possible in Chicago.

How about all over the other “civic” organizations in the city? Groups like Friends of the Chicago River, the Chicago Architectural Foundation, the Chicago Historical Society, Friends of the Parks, and many others out there fighting for clean water, clean air, and preservation of our history and green space.

Chicago’s rich people make that happen; all of Chicago’s residents benefit.

Organizations like PAWS and the Chicago Humane Society help us keep our humanity. They too are supported by Chicago’s wealthy.

We should not overlook the contributions of the wealthy to private schools like Francis Xavier Warde and Saint Ignatius. The tuition at these institutions — like nearly all private schools — does not come close to covering the actual operating expenses. These schools don’t discriminate against those who might not have the ability to pay. As such, they rely on donations to keep the buildings heated and the lights on.

And then of course there are the winter coat and holiday toy drives. The seemingly never-ending donations of backpacks and school supplies. Youth baseball and midnight basketball all receive contributions from well-heeled Chicagoans.

Chicago’s rich people make that happen; all of Chicago’s residents benefit.

Maybe it’s time for Chicago to do something for the rich. At the very minimum the city should make sure that they are safe and feel that their families are safe living, traveling, and working in the city. Because if you don’t take care of the rich, they may stop hanging around. And then you will have a situation where everyone has to buy their own dinner.

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