The political establishment in Illinois, led by Governor J. B. Pritzker, loudly proclaims itself progressive, especially in its pursuit of social justice. Pritzker asserts that his administration “is making social justice and the fight for equity a top priority,” which includes everything from “expanding voting rights to investing in historically underserved communities.” So audacious and vocal has the current Illinois political establishment been in this pursuit that last summer Chicago magazine, citing policies like eliminating cash bail and funding abortion clinics, declared that Illinois is the nation’s “most progressive state.” The magazine marveled not only at Pritzker, but Chicago’s black mayor, Brandon Johnson, a former union organizer and now America’s “most left-wing big city” executive.

Given these bona fides, one might imagine that Illinois has successfully elevated the “underserved communities” that Pritzker declares a priority. But not according to at least one prominent national minority advocacy group. In a scathing report, the National Black Empowerment Action Fund has taken Illinois to task, especially the Pritzker administration, for failing to live up to promises to minority communities and for creating a “dire” economic environment in the Prairie State. The group notes that the black unemployment rate in Illinois is the nation’s second highest and more than 50 percent above the national average. “The situation in Illinois cannot be blamed on national trends or factors outside the state’s control. It’s a direct result of the failed policies and neglect,” the report declares.

The group gives two stark examples of unfulfilled promises—signature pieces of legislation that were supposed to represent significant investment in minority businesses that have failed to produce any noticeable results. In September 2021, for instance, Pritzker signed the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, a quintessentially progressive piece of legislation that paired government-subsidized investment in “green” energy projects with programs to train and employ black workers and businesses in the burgeoning field. The effort included some $100 million nominally designated for apprenticeships for black students in construction trades, mentor initiatives for small minority-owned businesses, and programs to incubate new minority-owned firms. But according to the report, the Pritzker “administration has allocated just a fraction of this funding and accomplished astonishingly little.” In fact, the legislation has failed to benefit Illinoisans of all races. “One of the most stunning facts related to the implementation” of the legislation, according to the report, “is that Illinois actually saw job growth in the clean energy sector slow after its passage.”

Something similar has occurred with the state’s legalization of recreational marijuana in 2020, one of Pritzker’s first pieces of legislation. The governor pitched it as an “equity-centric law” that would “prioritize social justice.” In the governor’s eyes, the state wasn’t simply making pot legal for adults; it was embarking on a social-justice crusade, which would supposedly include sellers’ licenses for minority-owned companies and a loan program to defray start-up costs. As the pot industry burgeoned in Illinois, however, the social equity mission lagged. The first of these “equity” licenses, for firms majority-owned by racial minorities, weren’t granted until late 2022, when the legal pot business was already a $1.5 billion industry in the state, according to NBEA. Even as of early this year, the report found, fewer than 10 percent of lucrative dispensary licenses, and none of the cultivator licenses, have gone to such businesses. Meantime, press reports have noted that powerful state figures, including politicians and businessmen, have crowded into the field, cornering licenses—a pattern that has played out in several other states, too, raising concerns about political favoritism.

The empowerment group’s report is an effort to discomfit the Pritzker administration and prompt it to live up to its commitments. From that perspective, the group has a strong case. Pritzker garnered support from the black community for green-energy and pot initiatives by pitching them as social-justice causes, and his promises have yielded little. Even so, however, it seems naïve of the group to place its faith in government-centered minority-advancement programs, with their long history of failure. Indeed, Illinois isn’t the only state that has botched such initiatives. California, arguably a more progressive state, has also left minority applicants for pot licenses feeling “betrayed.” And broader set-aside programs for minority-owned firms have a long history of disappointment, enriching a few insiders but rarely producing a significant boost for minority communities.

When it comes to economic advancement, Illinois is failing minorities not because it’s not living up to its progressive values but because it is so progressive. The Illinois agenda of high taxes, heavy government regulation, and micromanaging of industries has produced one of the nation’s worst economies. State residents, including minorities, are fleeing. 

The real key to minority advancement is not set-asides or special programs but equal opportunity in a prosperous environment. To the extent any government investment facilitates minority advancement, it is in the fundamentals—like functioning public schools—and not in pot licenses for adults.

This is where the state fails most decisively. Brandon Johnson, the teachers’ union organizer–turned-mayor, is now impeding Chicago’s education reform. The city’s school district fails hundreds of thousands of its students, many of whom are minorities. Only 19 percent of the district’s third- through eighth-grade students are proficient in math. Even when students succeed in school, they face a “dire” economy upon graduation. American business executives in a recent poll ranked Illinois as one of their least favorite places to do business, ahead of only New York and California. One analysis rated Illinois the fifth-worst state to start a business in, based on its high business taxes and steady population drain due to outmigration. One study found that a majority of residents fleeing the state are aged 26 to 54—prime working age. These exiles aren’t retiring; they’re looking elsewhere for economic opportunity. In recent years, neighboring states have even run ad campaigns to poach workers they know are eager to leave the Land of Lincoln. The latest IRS migration statistics show that from 2019 to 2022, Illinois lost a net $35.2 billion in adjusted gross income from people leaving—the third-worst performance among states.

It’s disconcerting that Illinois is failing so blatantly to fulfill the promises it’s made to minority residents. But it’s foolish to think that, in such an anti-businesses state, one more government program will turn the tide.

Photo by Eva Russo for The Washington Post via Getty Images


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