Re: “The Great Divide” [January 31]

Harold Henderson’s carefully researched review of Myron Orfield’s “Chicago Regional Report” to the MacArthur Foundation offers a mixed bag of praise and criticism for the author and sponsor, some of it undeserved.

Orfield is praised for producing “stunning,” easily readable maps of suburban fiscal and economic disparities in the Chicago area. But he is faulted for failing to come up with map patterns consistent with his contention that fiscal disparities cause neighborhood and school decline. MacArthur Foundation comes up short because of excessive political correctness and timidity and reliance on consensus rather than confrontational politics in drawing policy implications from the report findings.

The inclusion of Chicago in the suburban comparisons is especially problematical. It places near the top quartile in school costs per pupil, but plunges to three places from the bottom in high school test scores among the school districts surveyed. As it is, Chicago places in three of the four classes of values indicative of fiscal distress plotted in the 19 maps.

This inconsistency is inherent in a comparison of midpoint and low-end distributional values among very unequal-sized places. Chicago is 25 times the size of the next largest place and is over 5,000 times the size of the smallest among the 262 places. But this oversimplification and distortion of data are necessary to yield easily readable maps.

Orfield draws on previous research on neighborhood decline and fiscal distress rather than on his maps for his conclusions.

Previous spatial studies and maps of economic distress and social pathology among Chicago neighborhoods and suburbs, including seminal work by the Chicago schools of urban sociology and urban geography on neighborhood decline dating back to 1925, offer abundant documentation of the spiral of community life cycle of declining neighborhoods in which racial change, disinvestment, and impoverishment are major factors of change.

Chicago’s egregious record of widening color and economic gaps is reflected in findings that Chicago is the most segregated large city and third most segregated metro area in the nation, that Chicago is home to nine of the nation’s ten poorest neighborhoods, and that Cook County is home to both the nation’s richest and poorest suburbs.

Thus, Orfield can fall back on abundant evidence of studies linking fiscal distress and social pathology for drawing his conclusions about the severe social costs for all of the widening disparities in school and municipal tax base and reliance on the local property tax to fund education. As for policy implications, his and his sponsor’s reticence in advancing tax-sharing and progressive tax reforms for local and state government is understandable given the dismal record of such attempts in the recent past.

We should be grateful to Orfield and the MacArthur Foundation for updating the atlas of suburban Chicago’s widening fiscal and economic disparities, and we should respect their political sagacity in urging community discussions and actions to bring about necessary reforms in the cause of both equity and self-interest for all.

Pierre DeVise