Like all American metropolitan regions, the Chicago area seems to live and labor under what could be called the Iron Law of Suburban Development. Because local property taxes support the schools, streets, and sewers, every town from Highwood to Chicago knows how to prosper: attract homes and businesses that pay beaucoup property taxes and need few services in return–and shun the rest. If you get Woodfield Mall, you win. If you get the modest homes of its employees and their school-age kids, you lose.

But the first win is only the beginning of a new game, one the winner starts with bonus points. With a bigger tax base and fewer services to pay for, the winner can offer a better deal to the next mall or manufacturer that comes along. By contrast, the loser, which has to pay for more kids’ schooling from a smaller tax base, is forced to offer either higher property taxes or fewer services.

Once the winner wins the second game, it has an even bigger head start when it comes to the next contest. The winners can zone for big houses on big lots, which bring in big revenues; the losers may eventually be reduced to welcoming a garbage incinerator for the sake of the jobs and taxes it brings.

Of course the losers struggle on. Cities may go bankrupt, but they don’t go away. Yet no matter how clever and dedicated their leaders are, all the losers can offer prospective businesses and residents is more of the same–more high taxes and more low services. That’s why Robbins and Ford Heights beg for crumbs, while Barrington Hills and Oak Brook get the whole loaf. And to the extent that local property taxes pay for most local services, the rich are going to keep on getting richer, the poor poorer–and the region more and more divided. Because of its size, Chicago itself can dodge the worst effects of the Iron Law. But the city has far more in common with its hard-pressed inner-ring suburbs than politicians on either side of Howard Street usually acknowledge.

Minnesota State Representative Myron Orfield started figuring this out seven years ago, when he ran for the legislature from his old Minneapolis neighborhood. It was poorer and more run-down than he remembered it was when he was growing up, and so were some nearby suburbs. Since 1976 Minneapolis and its suburbs have been sharing 40 percent of the property-tax revenues from new businesses among all area taxing bodies according to their need. This tax-base sharing, the consequence of the state Fiscal Disparities Act, enables all Twin Cities suburbs to cheer when one lands a new mall–because they all benefit to some extent, and they don’t have to waste time and energy and money competing against one another. Over the past 20 years, says Orfield, this has reduced the gap in property-tax base between the richest and the poorest Twin Cities suburbs from 47 to 1 down to 11 to 1. (If you leave out the smallest suburbs, the disparity dropped from 22 to 1 to 4 to 1.) By contrast, he says, the Chicago area now has a 33 to 1 disparity between richest and poorest.

Orfield says the Fiscal Disparities Act–which has survived repeated Republican challenges because more suburbs benefit from it than lose by it–also builds coalitions. Former antagonists in cities and suburbs can move on to tougher issues such as fair housing, regional land-use planning–even the possibility of electing a regional coordinating body. Tax-base sharing, says Orfield, is what enabled Minnesota lawmakers to put sewers and transit under a metropolitan council in 1994 and to empower the council to use those funds in 1995 to jawbone suburbs into allowing affordable housing.

Still, almost 20 years of tax-base sharing haven’t kept the Iron Law from working on the Twin Cities area. In 1995, in only the most recent of several attempts to expand the concept, Orfield proposed a bill that would enlarge the pool of shared funds by including tax revenues from new houses that cost more than $200,000. (This was a watered-down version of his earlier proposals.) A coalition of inner-city, inner-suburb, and rural representatives eventually pushed this bill through the legislature, but then the state’s Republican governor vetoed it as a “high-tax, wealth-redistribution, social-engineering agenda.” Orfield sounds as cool as a Minnesota winter about the defeat: “Every session we’ve gained strength,” he told a meeting of the Metropolitan Alliance of Congregations at the Illinois Institute of Technology in June.

Orfield wasn’t the first to worry about the Iron Law. But he was the first to draw the maps of suburban disparities that made it easy to talk about. Now he’s working under the aegis of the National Growth Management Leadership Project (headed by Henry Richmond in Portland, Oregon), mapping similar patterns around Portland, Seattle, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, San Francisco, Miami–and Chicago. He’s been showing the results to Chicago-area audiences for more than a year now.

“Chicago has more suburban decline and greater disparity than most of these places,” says Orfield, his matter-of-fact midwestern tone taking some of the sting out of the words. “There are more suburbs here that are poorer than the city–15 or 20 by most social measures. There are 60 with lower tax base.”

His platform style has made the thirtysomething Orfield an underground hit among policy wonks and community organizers in Chicago and northwest Indiana. But he avoided media coverage until last October, when his local funder, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, published six of the 90 or so maps he’d made of the region. Since then he’s gone public, debating defensive, wealthy suburbanites–most notably Du Page County Board chairman Gayle Franzen–on Channel 11 and WBEZ.

Still, few people have asked whether his maps prove everything he claims they do. And because both Orfield and foundation officials have been so discreet, even fewer have noticed that the two parties seem to disagree on how to reduce the disparities: Do you seek a region-wide consensus? Or do you do what Orfield has been doing in his own state–organize the have-nots to insist on a fairer share and, if necessary, outvote the haves?

Orfield’s maps make stunning visual aids. They transform the dry discussion of municipal finance constraints into an action-packed play-by-play with political implications anyone can grasp.

Each map shows the solid bulk of Chicago on the lake, surrounded by the tiny blocks and squiggles of its 261 suburbs. Each map runs north to Wisconsin, east to Indiana, west to Aurora and Crystal Lake, and south to Channahon and Crete. And each map–no matter what pattern it describes–uses the same easy-to-follow four-color scheme. The most successful communities are in dark blue, the moderately successful in light blue, the struggling in orange, and the worst off in red. So on a map of crime rates dark blue represents the lowest rates; on a map of median incomes dark blue represents the highest.

Communities that are dark blue on all the maps are the winners, having ample property taxes to take care of their relatively small local needs. Communities colored red on map after map are the losers, having small property tax bases to deal with large local needs. How, asks Orfield, can older inner-ring suburbs, old fringe cities like Joliet or Waukegan, and new low-tax-base suburbs that are still growing compete?

At a glance, the maps show what locals already know: in general the North Shore and the northwest and far-western suburbs are better off than the southern, southwestern, and near-western suburbs. This inequality isn’t news. Within reason, it may not even be bad news. But the Iron Law says that this inequality follows a pattern–if your burb is red on one map it will be red on most–and that pattern is feeding on itself, so that the chasm between red land and blue land will keep on growing unless some political body does something about it.

“I’ve been familiar with these facts for decades,” says Oak Park village president Lawrence Christmas. “The maps don’t show that the disparity is worsening. They’re just a snapshot in time. But if we had the money, we could prove a long-term trend.” A close look at the maps suggests that Christmas has a point. Orfield may be in the same predicament as Marcia Clark: she believed OJ did it, but the proof wasn’t quite there.

The maps are great conversation starters. In each one Orfield has condensed pages of boring and confusing numbers into a colorful image. But to relieve us of boredom and confusion, he had to make a lot of assumptions that the maps, in their vivid simplicity, conceal. They demand questions; here are three.

¥ What do red and blue really mean? They look absolute on Orfield’s maps, but they’re only relative. Dark blue simply means “above average” and red means “below average.” The maps don’t show how far above or below; you have to read the text to learn that. When Orfield maps the percentage of preschool children in poverty, dark blue means “under 2 percent” (the top quarter of all suburbs) and red means “8 percent or more” (the poorest quarter)–a fourfold or greater spread. But when he maps median household income, dark blue means “$51,000 or more” (again, the top quarter) and red means “under $35,000” (the bottom quarter)–a much smaller gap, but the same colors.

Since red and dark blue are relative to each other, these maps couldn’t show progress toward equality even if it occurred. A hypothetical, virtually uniform region, one in which the richest suburb had a median income of $42,005 and the poorest $41,995, could produce a map with the same colors in the same places. But Orfield didn’t go to all this work to tell us that half of Chicagoland’s municipalities are below average. His point is that they are too far below average to have any hope of ever catching up on their own. The maps would strengthen his case if they reflected that.

¥ How clear are the patterns? Do the maps justify talking about “red lands” and “blue lands”? Sort of. There are a few consistent losers and winners, but not as many as you might expect after 50 years of allegedly inexorable polarization. For instance, take the maps of child poverty published in Orfield’s “Chicago Region Report.” The Iron Law says that if your suburb is red on the 1990 map, it’s probably also red on the map showing the 1980-’90 trend as well. (In other words, the poor are getting poorer.) And sure enough, 21 suburbs come up red both on the map that shows the percentage of preschoolers in poverty in 1990 and on its companion, which shows the change in preschooler poverty from 1980 to1990. These 21 suburbs are double reds–relatively poor to start with and getting poorer, just as the Iron Law predicts. Working from north to south, they are Lake Villa, North Chicago, Carpentersville, West Chicago, Cicero, Lyons, Summit, Aurora, Worth, Joliet, Elwood, Robbins, Riverdale, Calumet City, Posen, Markham, Harvey, Hazel Crest, University Park, Ford Heights, and Chicago Heights.

But Orfield also maps four other measures of poverty that we can compare in the same way: female-headed households with children as a percentage of total households with children, median household income, tax base per household, and crime rate. For each measure, one map shows the current numbers and another shows the previous decade’s trends. When we look at these maps, the Iron Law starts to look, well, flexible. Of the 21 suburbs that are double-reds on child poverty, only 3 (Robbins, Ford Heights, and University Park) show up as double-reds on all four other measures. And 6 of the 21 (Lake Villa, Cicero, Lyons, Aurora, Worth, and Elwood) aren’t double reds on any of the other four. That’s not what the Iron Law would predict.

Altogether, out of the 261 suburbs and Chicago, only 8 places qualify as double reds on at least four out of the five poverty indices: Robbins, Ford Heights, University Park, North Chicago, Riverdale, Calumet City, Harvey, and Chicago Heights. Their plight is unquestionably desperate–but if the Iron Law were the whole story, wouldn’t there be more of them? Surprisingly, at the other extreme only one suburb scores a double dark blue four out of five times: Winnetka. (Chicago is a double-red on only one measure, crime rate; it’s a double dark blue on none.) There are even a few suburbs that flagrantly violate the Iron Law by going both ways: Lynwood, for instance, is a double red in tax base per household, and a double dark blue in child poverty. Should it line up with the losers or the winners?

¥ Do the maps show that disparities between suburbs have been increasing? Not really, because they don’t go back far enough. Maps of inflation-adjusted property values and incomes over the past 30 or 40 years might show the progress of the Iron Law, as people and businesses with choices left the inner suburbs for supposedly greener (bluer?) pastures. Orfield didn’t do any maps like that, but he could have. The Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission has been gathering the numbers for almost 40 years in a series of regional “fact books.” At the extremes at least, they back Orfield up. In 1960 the median family income of the richest suburb (Winnetka) was $20,166, while the poorest (East Chicago Heights, now Ford Heights) was $4,421. That’s roughly a five to one ratio top to bottom. By 1989 the richest (Riverwoods) was $125,074 and the poorest (Ford Heights) was $14,032–a nine to one ratio top to bottom. (Nor did the rising tide lift all boats: corrected for inflation, $14,032 is actually lower than the 1960 figure of $4,421.) Over the same time span an even more dramatic gap in assessed property value per person opened between the richest and poorest suburbs. The law may not be iron, but it’s a lot heftier than tinfoil.

One reason it’s hard to prove the Iron Law of Suburban Development is that Illinois has taken some steps to mitigate its worst effects. Not all local services come out of the local property tax; many are subsidized by the state–and few communities get back the same amount of state income tax that they paid in. “We are sharing the wealth,” insisted Gayle Franzen on Chicago Tonight in November. “Harvey gets 60 percent of its school budget from the state. Du Page gets only 10 percent.” Such transfers do help close what would otherwise be yawning disparities. For instance, on the 1993-’94map of school spending per student Chicago is actually light blue (in the top third), even though it was orange in tax base per household and red in median household income. State aid makes the difference, and much of that money comes out of suburban blue-land pockets.

Orfield never mentions this unless asked–it doesn’t strengthen his case for more transfers. Franzen and other suburbanites can’t stop talking about it–it strengthens their case that things are fine the way they are. (Franzen doesn’t discuss how much in “shared” state income taxes come back to help the blue lands, such as the subsidies that helped Sears move out to Hoffman Estates, where it now pays property taxes.) Both sides seem to need a clear-cut enemy.

But there may not be one. Ronald Bean–an attorney, Governors State University professor, and former Park Forest village manager–points out that the argument about sharing the wealth isn’t one of principle. “What Orfield is saying is nothing more than what we do already. Chicago’s spending in Lawndale doesn’t reflect the tax revenues from Lawndale but from the whole city. Cities exist so that we can do in cooperation what we cannot do individually. In order to do that, you make the tax base as broad as possible. We already redistribute revenues and resources. His argument is that we need to do so more.”

How much more? Franzen has said Orfield believes there should be no winners or losers at all. Orfield denies that, saying, “My goal has always been [a] four to one [ratio of tax base top to bottom]. That would allow suburban communities to compete a little better.” But he has also written, more ambiguously, that “basic public services, such as police and fire, local infrastructure, parks, and particularly local schools, should be equal on a metropolitan level. People of moderate means should not have inferior public services because they cannot afford to live in property rich communities”–which seems to leave open the question of what counts as “equal.”

Still, in a crude way, Franzen has posed the key question. Having started sharing by government decree, when do you stop? At what point do the losers have a fair enough chance? Philosophically the argument could go on forever (and the winners hope it will). Politically, it seems that inequality by itself isn’t going to bring people to the barricades–or to the lobbies of the Illinois General Assembly. Buy systematic, self-perpetuating, deepening inequality could.

So far the call to the barricades has been muted–almost certainly because the MacArthur Foundation, which funded Orfield’s Chicago maps, wants it that way. Last April Orfield couldn’t attend a scheduled Bright New City forum to present his maps, so George Ranney Jr. filled in for him at the last minute. Ranney, an attorney and trustee of the foundation, gave a knowledgeable explanation of the maps, then added a brief commentary of his own. The maps, he said, “will lead to a debate, not all of it healthy. There are real dangers in the Orfield analysis. You could end up with the haves against the have-nots. In Illinois we’ve avoided that class distinction to some extent. It would be unfortunate if this led to ‘warfare’ based on economics and race.”

Ranney is no Gayle Franzen. As he told the Bright New City audience, “To be realistic, we have to think regionally” about transportation, education, taxes, the environment, and community design. He was questioning Orfield’s prescription, not his diagnosis. Along with business-oriented advocacy groups like the Metropolitan Planning Council, Ranney would prefer that regional thinking come about because all the parties recognize that it’s in their own long-term interests. Negotiate with Du Page, don’t try to outvote it.

Orfield’s findings had been expected to appear within weeks of that spring gathering, but the MacArthur Foundation took another six months to publish them. “His original report was Myron Orfield producing a policy agenda,” says MacArthur consultant Julie Hamos, “which did not suit the client’s needs in

this case.”

In October the client’s needs were satisfied in a curiously fragmented way. Two booklets appeared: “Mapping the Future” contained six maps, and the much more detailed “Chicago Regional Report” contained 19 maps. “Mapping the Future” is free and widely distributed. The “Chicago Regional Report” is neither. You can purchase a copy from Orfield’s Minneapolis office for $35–if you know about it. Its existence isn’t even mentioned in “Mapping the Future.”

In other ways large and small “Mapping the Future” blunts Orfield’s more activist points in favor of an implicit consensus view.

¥ The booklet makes strange use of Orfield’s map of crime rates, claiming that it shows how “crime invades rich and poor communities alike.” But the map shows just the opposite. Oak Lawn and Flossmoor, for two, are dark blue territories almost entirely surrounded by red. (In the “Chicago Regional Report” Orfield uses this map to make the opposite point–that greater social needs often coexist with fewer resources for dealing with them.)

¥ Foundation-sponsored meetings held to discuss “Mapping the Future” are not to be used to advocate any particular solution. Hamos opened a November 20 meeting at DePaul’s downtown campus with this caution, and steered the discussion away from specific approaches whenever it veered in that direction. (Orfield followed the script and scrupulously avoided pushing tax-base sharing.)

¥ Both “Mapping the Future” and the “Chicago Regional Report” include the map titled “Tax Base Per Household,” which shows the 106 suburbs with below-average property tax bases in red and orange. But there’s one difference in how they’re presented. In the “Chicago Regional Report” Orfield notes that the below-average suburbs are home to 4,568,300 people–“68 percent of the region’s total population of incorporated places.” This suggestive tidbit doesn’t appear in “Mapping the Future.”

The split between advocates of consensus (such as Ranney) and advocates of coalition politics (such as Orfield, at least on his home turf) shouldn’t be seen as going too deep. It hasn’t kept the three Cook County suburban associations–the Northwest Municipal Conference, the West Central Municipal Conference, and the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association–from jointly asking MacArthur for roughly $100,000 to evaluate political remedies. “We’re trying to reduce reliance on the property tax,” says WCMC’s David Bennett.

Advocates of both consensus and coalition politics tend to think of the Iron Law as iron, and agree that something needs to be done. And whether it is tax-base sharing (as in the Twin Cities), an urban growth boundary (Portland, Oregon), or widely distributed affordable housing (Montgomery County, Maryland), that something usually involves some kind of regionwide authority to achieve it.

But will regionalism by itself reduce inequalities? Orfield thinks so, citing the contrast between Indianapolis (which has a regional government and less poverty) and Milwaukee (fragmented government, more poverty). But Indianapolis benefits from being a state capital, throwing the comparison into question. There are other reasons to wonder:

¥ The city of Chicago can be seen as a de facto regional government that continually annexed suburbs and vast open spaces until about a century ago–but it was hardly renowned for egalitarianism, even before the suburbs began to eat its lunch. An Orfield-style map of Chicago neighborhoods today would reveal the same gross disparities in income and resources that plague the suburbs; having a single government and a single tax base hasn’t made Lawndale into Lincoln Park. And until Harold Washington became mayor–hardly a consensus project–having a single citywide Park District didn’t mean that black neighborhoods had decent parks. (Yet as Orfield points out, having one government does make it easier to organize for fairness.)

¥ Similarly, region-wide transportation authorities routinely spend more on mass transit for the well-off than for those who most need it. The Chicago Transit Authority provides 80 percent of the mass-transit trips in northeastern Illinois (the rest are Metra commuter train and Pace suburban bus). But the Regional Transportation Authority gives CTA only 62 percent of its operating grants and 58 percent of its federal capital funds. (In Los Angeles the inequities are much worse.)

Can either strategy–consensus or coalition–persuade Chicagoland towns and cities to let a region-wide authority have any power at all? It’s hard to believe, but then so was the fall of the Soviet Union. But even if a consensus strategy does accomplish that goal, Orfield’s prescription for coalition politics will still hold good. If you want a fair share–if you want to be allowed to even discuss the idea of a fair share–you will have to fight for it, regardless of how the government is set up.

If the idea of regional government is on the table, the have-nots might as well start organizing now. Unless Robbins and Joliet and Chicago agitate and lobby and vote with their common interests in mind, they will do little better as wards of Northeasternillinoisville than they have on their own.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Mike Werner.